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Why University of Michigan graduate workers say they're willing to strike

The University of Michigan students walk through the Diag in Ann Arbor.
Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio
The Graduate Employees Organization voted to authorize a strike this week, drawing criticism from the university's president.

More than a thousand graduate student employees at the University of Michigan have voted to authorize a strike, after months of negotiations still haven’t produced a new contract for the staff who teach, grade, tutor and do other instruction and administrative work for the school.

Members of the Graduate Employees Organization say the University has failed to offer a “living wage,” even as some members are “skipping meals and rationing medication just to get by,” said Amir Fleischmann, the contract chair of the Graduate Employees Organization. “We're putting forward a vision of a university that's accessible to anybody, and saying that you shouldn't have to be rich to be a graduate student at the University of Michigan.”

But the university’s president, Santa Ono, released a campus-wide statement via email Friday morning criticizing the union’s decision and its bargaining tactics. “We are disappointed that the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) has decided to take this step,” Ono’s statement said. “A strike would needlessly hurt undergraduate students and violate the union’s own contractual commitment not to do so.”

GEO: University failing to offer a “living wage”

When it comes to pay, the union has been “unwilling to deviate at all from their original proposals despite months of negotiating,” said Ono in his statement, which was co-signed by provost Laurie K. McCauley. (The University’s public affairs office declined to comment beyond Ono’s statement, saying, “There is nothing more to add beyond what is outlined in the email.”)

“The union demands that its members receive a 60% wage increase in the first year of their contract, and additional increases in the second and third years,” Ono’s statement said. “GEO proposed this raise in November and has not moved at all from it since then. Under the university’s current compensation proposal, GEO members on the Ann Arbor campus would receive 11.5% in total raises over the next three years (5%, 3.5%, 3%) and make roughly $38-$39 per hour by year three.”

But that simply doesn’t add up to a livable wage, Fleischmann said.

“The gap between our salaries and the cost of living has tripled since 2020, and our members are regularly struggling to make rents and afford basic necessities like groceries and childcare,” he said. “Four out of five of us are considered rent burdened by area standards, and the university continues to offer us ‘raises’ that are below the rate of inflation. And so what that really means for members is that they're asking us to take an effective pay cut, which would only make the cost of living crisis worse.”

Currently, GEO members earn about $34 per hour, according to the union, and make roughly $24,000 if they teach 20 hours a week during both fall and winter semesters. But in reality, he said, the job requires far more than just 20 hours a week, Fleischmann said.

“We do a lot of work that's not reflected in that salary,” he said. “We do research for the university. We mentor students and we do service. And by that I mean, for example, running at admitted student weekends, and stuff like that. Those are things that faculty get paid to do. But graduate students are expected to do it for free. We're expected to be working full time and then some. So we are not part time workers. We work all the time, and we need to make enough money to be able to live in Ann Arbor.”

Under the union’s salary proposal, the typical salary would be roughly $38,000, he said. (That’s slightly below the $39,252 full-time, annual income a single adult with no children would need to earn to make a living wage in Washtenaw County, according to MIT’s living wage calculator.)

Currently, the University of Michigan is struggling to recruit some competitive graduate students because of the salary, Fleischmann claimed. That’s because many other schools offer more money.

“But we're losing out on graduate students who we've admitted to universities like Cornell, who are lower ranked [in some departments] but pay a higher stipend,” he said. “And…the stipend issue is most important for the most marginalized grad students, people who don’t have family support, people who might have to be supporting members of their own families.”

GEO members also receive healthcare and dental benefits, a childcare subsidy for each of the four-months-long semesters ($3,043 per semester for one child, and up to $6,631per semester for three or more children) and a tuition waiver for their graduate education. But that waiver is standard practice in higher education, Fleischmann said, and shouldn’t be considered part of their salary. “Tuition waivers don't pay the rent,” he said. “It’s not money that we’re free to spend however we want.”

An impasse over the role of police on campus

GEO is also asking for the University to provide “funding for an unarmed, non-violent police alternative on campus.” But the administration says that’s not something that should be decided by contract negotiations.

“The union demands the university fund a non-police urgent response program separate from the Division of Public Safety and Security (DPSS) and available throughout Washtenaw County, as well as bar federal agents from entering university property to execute certain search or arrest warrants,” President Ono’s statement said. “Both proposals are outside the scope of the union’s contract and would be inappropriate for one bargaining unit to decide for our entire community."

But the union believes it’s become a matter of public safety for its members, Fleischman said, adding that the University itself has declared policing to be a public health concern. “I have a colleague who lives in University housing, he's an international student, [and] his partner doesn't speak very much English. They have a young kid who's maybe five years old. And this kid was playing in their yard. He knocked over a neighbor's Halloween decoration or something, and the neighbor called the cops on them… So you can imagine what it's like for a five year old child of color, having armed police officers come to ask them what they're doing, while they're just playing around.

“So having an unarmed response program available would provide an alternative for people to call, so that we don't have people with guns attending to every little thing on campus. And I'll also add that what we're asking for is for the university to fund a community-led initiative called Coalition for Re-envisioning Our Safety, which is based in Washtenaw County. And the city of Ann Arbor itself is looking into creating a similar program.”

What happens if GEO strikes? 

Contract negotiations were scheduled to continue Friday, and the University says that any strike at this point would be illegal. Nonetheless, the University has plans in place if a strike does occur, Ono said in his statement: classes will continue as scheduled, with “substitute instructors, alternative assignments, and other means for delivering instruction if it is required.”

Administrators also “will take appropriate lawful actions to enable the continued delivery of our educational mission in the event of a work disruption,” Ono said. “Those actions will include asking a court to find a breach of contract and order strikers back to work, stopping the deduction of union dues, filing unfair labor practice charges, and not paying striking GSIs and GSSAs for time they do not work.”

The University of Michigan owns Michigan Radio's broadcast license.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.