UM graduate students go on strike; university asks state for return order

Hannah Mackay
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The University of Michigan’s Graduate Employees' Organization kicked off a strike Wednesday after five months of negotiations with university administrators over pay and other benefits as UM leaders vowed to get them ordered back into the classrooms.

Hundreds of students, both undergraduate and graduate, attended a GEO rally on UM's diag Wednesday morning before breaking off into smaller groups to picket several buildings on campus, including Mason Hall and the Student Union. GEO leaders asked students not to cross the picket lines to attend class and not to pick up work that would be done by someone who is striking.

Many students seemed to be attending classes Wednesday, including at Mason Hall where a picket line was present, but the extent of those who sympathized with the striking graduate students was unclear.

"We'll be out here every weekday until we get what we deserve," said Ember McCoy, a graduate student in the School for Environment and Sustainability. "We the graduate workers, the second largest body of instructors after tenure track faculty, we can't afford our rent, our medical bills, our groceries, a $500 emergency or a trip home."

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

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, university spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said. The strike violates the current GEO contract and Michigan law, which prohibits public employees from striking, Fitzgerald added.

"We strongly believe the best place to resolve differences is at the bargaining table," Fitzgerald wrote in an email. "Our focus remains on continuing instruction for our students and achieving an agreement with GEO through the negotiation process. The next bargaining session is scheduled for Friday, and the university remains ready to meet at any time."

Labor expert Steve Delie at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy said the university is taking a narrow interpretation of Michigan's Public Employment Relations Act, which states that graduate student research assistants or students in equivalent positions are not public employees. Graduate student research assistants are not subject to any agreement between UM and the GEO, according to the university.

"PERA does not apply to graduate students, and the university has no obligation to collectively bargain with them under state law. Despite this, it appears the university has chosen to bargain with the GEO," Delie said.

The strike is expressly prohibited by the GEO's current contract with the university. Delie said UM can ask a court to enforce the contract by suing for an injunction, rather than filing an unfair labor practice. The GEO acknowledges the illegality of the strike on its website and that it is a break of contract for which the university could legally discipline or fire members. 

A Michigan Employment Relations Commission official did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment.

The university did not have any estimates for the number of students and classes affected by Wednesday's strike as individual professors are taking different approaches, Fitzgerald said. The university was planning for substitute instructors, alternative assignments and other means of delivering instruction if necessary, Ono and McCauley told the Ann Arbor campus on March 24.

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.

Several undergraduate students showed their support for the GEO at Wednesday's rally.

"GEO's demands are in the best interest of undergraduate students here," senior Mahnoor Imran said. "The administration needs to put some serious offers on the table that meet the serious concerns that graduate employees are raising. Until then we will be on the picket line."

The current contract is set to expire May 1, but the Graduate Employees’ Organization union, which represents about 2,300 graduate student instructors and staff assistants, voted to authorize a strike last week.

The GEO also filed unfair labor practice charges against the university with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. The university has refused to bargain over mandatory subjects and has withheld information that is essential to bargaining, said Amir Fleischmann, a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in political science.

"We're also standing strong because we know that it is the university that has broken the laws in their bargaining with us," said Jared Eno, a graduate student studying sociology. "We are ... not afraid of the university that would take us to court rather than pay us a living wage."

The university plans to ask a court to order strikers back to work for breaching their contract, stop the deduction of union dues and not pay striking GEO members for the time they don't work, UM President Santa Ono and Provost Laurie McCauley said in a March 24 update. But there was no indication of such a move on Wednesday.

When the union struck in fall 2020, UM sought an injunction to get graduate workers back in classrooms.

Picketers march in front of Mason Hall 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.

What union is demanding

Sticking points in the current negotiations include compensation, harassment protections, funding for child care, inequities faced by international students, gender-affirming care and workplace safety, according to the GEO.

Gender-affirming care includes the range of social, psychological, behavioral and medical interventions that can support and affirm an individual’s gender identity when it is different than the gender at birth, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. GEO members have "excellent transgender health coverage" in their current contract, but they are looking to make it more accessible, Fleischmann said.

"There still remain barriers between them (transgender students) and receiving that care," Fleischmann said. "So there is some really onerous documentation that you need to submit that you wouldn't need to submit for any other kinds of health care and limits on the number of sessions for voice therapy and things like that, that we're trying to get rid of."

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. The minimum full-time stipend for graduate student instructors on the Ann Arbor campus in the 2022-23 academic year was $24,055 per term but only one currently works full-time and most work half-time, according to the university. 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 university countered this proposal with an offer to increase wages 11.5% for graduate students working on the Ann Arbor campus and 6% for those working in Flint and Dearborn over three years. The average hourly pay for graduate students working on the Ann Arbor campus would be $38-$39 after three years.

GEO has also called on the university to fund a community-based, non-violent, unarmed response program that is separate from the Division of Public Safety, Fleischmann said.

"If somebody's having a mental health crisis on campus, there should be a number you can call or someone who's trained in de-escalation who doesn't have a gun can come and make the situation better," Fleischmann said.

The university said this proposal is not a mandatory subject of bargaining because it does not affect the wages, hours, or terms and conditions of employment for GEO members, according to the unfair labor practice charge filed on Wednesday.

Students feel effects

Other proposals by the union include asking the university to set up an emergency fund for international students, who the union says face higher travel costs and expenses related to visas, and allowing instructors to require masks in classrooms, Fleischmann said.

Jamie Lee, a junior studying biopsychology, cognition and neuroscience, said a couple of her classes, particularly discussion sections that are led by graduate student instructors, have already been canceled or might be later this week. Lee said another professor told her a class would be canceled if picketers were outside the building during class time so students could avoid crossing the picket line.

Lee said she would likely attend her class that was not canceled to avoid losing points, but she felt conflicted about it because she did not want to break the picket lines.

"I didn't feel comfortable like going to class and not going to class at the same time," Lee said. "This morning, I actually had a dilemma about that, because in this class, we do a lot of work that has a lot of point value attached to it, and not showing up for that class means you forfeit those points for the day.

"... I am going to decide to attend the class, but it's really not because I don't support GEO, it's really because I need that point value."

Everyone Lee asked Wednesday has been affected by the strike in some way, and many are worried about how classes will pan out so close to final exams, she said.

"This is a serious institutional problem that could be solved with real collective bargaining on the part of the university toward the GEO strikers," Lee said. "There's a really easy way to just not do this, to have GSIs be honored for their work, to be paid fairly for their work and also to have them continue to work for the university."

The university's Lecturers' Employee Organization came out in support of the GEO's strike on Wednesday, encouraging its own members to support the graduate students' strike in a statement.

"Our union siblings in GEO have been bargaining with the university administration since November 17th. Although modest progress is now being made, the parties remain far apart," LEO President Kirsten Herold said in a statement. "We urge the UM administration to engage with GEO at the table and come to an agreement that recognizes the vital role of graduate workers and their contributions to this institution."

Other students supported the strike. One of Al Kucich's four classes was canceled on Wednesday, but the 20-year-old junior studying physics said he still felt enthusiastic about the strike.

"Without our GSIs and also the grad students who work in our research labs and help us learn and gain research experience, we wouldn't have a very valuable education here," Kucich said. "Their living conditions are our learning conditions, so we just really hope for the best for them."