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Weekday mornings on Michigan Radio, Doug Tribou hosts NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to news radio program in the country.

University of Michigan graduate student employees still on strike as term ends

Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor with the Michigan "Block M" shown through wrought-iron fencing.
Paul Sancya
A union representing about 2300 graduate student instructors and staff assistants at the University of Michigan has been on strike since March 29. U of M will hold its commencement ceremony at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on April 29.

It is commencement week at the University of Michigan. While many students prepare to line up to receive their diplomas, some graduate students continue to line up to picket.

The Graduate Employees Organization at U of M has been on strike since March 29. The GEO’s current contract expires May 1 and the negotiations have been contentious.

For more on the contract negotiations and on-going strike, Michigan Radio Morning Edition host Doug Tribou spoke with Sam Dodge, who covers higher education for The Ann Arbor News.

Doug Tribou: The Graduate Employees Organization represents about 2300 people. These are grad students who serve as instructors for undergraduate courses and work with faculty members, or work as staff assistants. What are their primary requests in the negotiations with U of M?

Sam Dodge: Their primary request is compensation. They want a living wage. That's how they billed this strike. And they make about $24,000 a year currently, and they're looking to make $38,000. Ann Arbor is not the most affordable place to live, and that's their position. They want to be able to live and work here without going paycheck to paycheck. They have a lot of other demands in there, [including] childcare subsidies [and] creating an unarmed police force. But really, their main thing is compensation.

DT: And so far, how has U of M responded to the union's requests?

SD: Their current proposal is a 5% raise in the first year, 3.5% the second year, [and] 3% in the third year of the contract that they're proposing. They're billing that as raising the per-hour rate of wage to $39 an hour.

Workers are only billed for 16 to 20 hours a week of work. You can speak to a lot of them — it's anecdotal — but a lot of them end up working really more than 20 hours a week.

U of M will hold its 2023 commencement on April 29. The GEO strike began on March 29. In addition to contract negotiations, there are questions about how final grades will be handled.

U of M and the union have really been at a standstill on [pay]. There was a little bit of movement in the last bargaining session earlier this week. The union said, "Okay, maybe we can bring it [down] from a 60% increase... maybe we can back that off by about 30%. We'll consider it." And U of M seem like they'd be amenable to that. But really, they've been at a standstill for almost a month on that compensation issue.

DT: I want to note here that the University of Michigan holds Michigan Radio's broadcast license. The strike itself is the subject of a legal fight. U of M filed an unfair labor practice claim, saying the GEO contract has a no-strike clause. An administrative law judge agreed earlier this month.

The Michigan Employment Relations Commission is set to meet on May 9. What will that meeting determine?

SD: What that meeting eventually will do is basically ratify the recommended order to try to force the strike to end. The GEO and the union have said that they'd still continue to strike probably after that. They don't seem like they're ready to stop yet, but we'll see that process when it gets closer to that.

DT: Sam, how has this strike affected the day-to-day routine in classes for students and professors?

SD: There's a lot of anecdotal stuff out there. I think a lot of students are actually thrilled that some of their assignments are being graded later, that they got a little bit of break and canceled classes.

There's a lot of contention between the union and the university on how grades are affecting students and their futures: financial aid applications, graduate school applications.

A lot of the adjustment the university has been making is trying to figure out alternate ways to grade classes. There's a university policy that basically says if there's an absence of an instructor that was initially supposed to grade things that they can ask an alternate faculty member to grade that stuff. There's been some pushback by faculty on that. There's some that are withholding grades through May 12 in solidarity with the union. But that's in the dozens and there's almost 8000 faculty members.

DT: Well, the semester is over and the GEO contract ends May 1. What does all of that mean for the negotiating process and the leverage that each side may or may not have?

SD: I think the union would say that they still have some leverage because they have some faculty support to not grade through May 12. The main leverage that the university has is they have not been paying these striking workers that have confirmed that they're not working during this time. There is a strike fund that is mitigating some of that loss of revenue, but it's definitely hitting strikers hard. So you wonder how long they're going to last without making actual money.

Further reading from Samuel Dodge for The Ann Arbor News:

"University of Michigan faculty withholding grades to support striking grad workers"

"New deal mandates striking University of Michigan grad instructors to submit unfinished grades"

Editor's notes: Some quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview near the top of this page.

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

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Katheryne Friske is the weekend morning host and producer for All Things Considered.
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