Graduate students' union outlines top 5 demands for UM in talks

Hannah Mackay
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The University of Michigan’s Graduate Employees’ Organization went on strike Wednesday morning by saying the demands of the 2,300 graduate students needed to be taken more seriously.

The university filed an unfair labor practice charge against GEO with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission on Wednesday, asking the commission to order the GEO to stop unlawfully striking.

A large crowd of graduate students and their supporters gathers on the Diag on the campus of the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, March 29, 2023.  The university’s Graduate Employees Organization kicked off a strike Wednesday after five months of negotiations with university administrators over pay and other benefits.

The current contract expires May 1. The following are demands in negotiation for a three-year contract by the GEO:

Living wage for all

The graduate students are demanding base salaries of $38,542 a year — up 60% from $24,053, which the union says is what the average graduate student instructor currently makes in a year — as well as child care subsidies and an emergency fund for international workers, according to the union.but only one currently works full-time and most work half-time

The minimum stipend for graduate student instructors on the Ann Arbor campus in the 2022-23 academic year was $24,055 per term, according to the university, but only one instructor currently works full-time and most work half-time. They have asked for a 60% increase in compensation for employees in Ann Arbor and Dearborn and an 88% increase for those in Flint in the first year of a new contract, according to an update from March 10.

The union's representatives are requesting a "living wage" so that members will be able to afford things like rising Ann Arbor rent, medical bills, groceries, emergencies and trips home.

The university has increased its compensation offer to the GEO twice since contract negotiations began, while the union has not altered its initial proposal, UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald told The Detroit News on Tuesday. UM's most recent offer would increase Ann Arbor graduate student workers' wages 11.5% and Flint and Dearborn's graduate student workers' wages by 6% over three years.

Emergency fund and needs aid

The GEO is asking the university to create an emergency fund for international students, expand child care subsidies and make them more accessible for graduate students, and put caps on copays for members with chronic conditions and disabilities.

The university rejected the proposal for an international student fund and said the union was overreaching since it would apply to any enrolled international graduate student and not just GEO members, according to an update from Jan. 27. The Rackham Graduate School has an emergency fund available to all graduate students, the university said.

The GEO's proposal to expand child care subsidies would get rid of existing requirements that the child care provider is licensed and the worker's spouse or partner is also working part-time or attending school, the university said in a Jan. 27 update. It would also increase the subsidy and change the structure of the program, which is administered by the Office of Financial Aid. Since all students are eligible for the program the university said they would not make changes to it in a bargaining agreement.

Expand funds for survivors of harassment

GEO would like the university to expand the existing program, which currently only applies to the College of Literature Science and the Arts, to provide transitional funds for survivors of harassment to all graduate workers. 

"In the past three or four years, both the provost and the president were fired for sexual misconduct," said Amir Fleischmann, a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in political science. "For example, if you're a graduate student doing research in a lab and you are harassed and you need to switch to another lab, that's incredibly disruptive. It delays your time to do so we're asking for this funding so that if that happens, you have stability, and you're able to finish your degree." 

GEO's proposal would require access to the money to be "no questions asked" without any reporting requirements, Fleischmann said. 

The university requested "additional discussion and clarification on the policies and procedures governing the proposed funds" but said a request for a smaller group meeting with the union was declined in an update on Feb. 3. A counter-proposal on workplace harassment and discrimination was presented by the union on Feb. 10, but "much of the language was unchanged," according to the university.

Non-police public safety force

GEO is also asking the university to fund a community-based and unarmed response program that is not affiliated with campus police. As part of the program, people who are trained in de-escalation would respond to individuals having mental health crises on campus.

This proposal does not relate to the wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment for GEO members and the university said it is not a mandatory subject of bargaining in unfair labor practice charges filed Wednesday with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. The proposed services would also be available to non-unit members and the general public, the university said.

Expand gender-affirming care

Graduate student workers have "excellent transgender health coverage" in their current contract with the university, Fleischmann said. They are asking that the university remove barriers to this health care, including "onerous documentation" that students don't have to fill out for other forms of health care, he said. 

Gender-affirming care encompasses the social, psychological, behavioral and medical interventions that support and affirm someone's gender identity when it differs from the gender they were assigned at birth, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The health insurance offered to the UM community is administered by Blue Care Network. The network's requirements indicate that a letter from a primary care physician is acceptable to access transgender health care coverage, the university said in an update on Feb. 3. The university and GEO have seen through several iterations of proposals and counter-proposals on transgender health benefits since then, and the parties last announced that they had "made some progress" on Feb. 24.