This post was written and motivated based on the personal experience of the listed authors and editors. They are not necessarily representative of the views of the American Astronomical Society or other institutions with whom our authors are affiliated.
Written an edited by University of Michigan Graduate Workers: Jenny Calahan, Matthew DeFurio, Hayley Beltz
The graduate students at the University of Michigan have been on strike since March 30th for a living wage and improved working conditions.
The current guaranteed salary for a GSI (graduate student instructor) at Michigan is $24,000 with pay only guaranteed for 8 months, and no guarantees for summer funding. According to Rent.com, the average 1 bedroom apartment in Ann Arbor costs ~$1,854, and continues to increase. In order to not be rent burdened (i.e. spend <=30% of your salary on rent), a GSI would need to spend $600 a month on housing while approximately only 4% of housing in Ann Arbor costs less than $1,000/month. The current guaranteed salary of UM graduate workers ($24,000) is not a living wage for the town that the University of Michigan is housed in. The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), the union representing all GSIs, has been asking for a living wage ($38.5k/yr) to be guaranteed in our next contract. The University has countered that with a 5% wage increase in the first year, then a 3.5% then 3% increase in the subsequent years, or a guaranteed income of ~$26.9k by 2025. This wage increase does not keep up with current inflation, nor the pace at which rent has been increasing each year in Ann Arbor. Additionally, they only made this offer to the graduate students on the UM Ann Arbor campus, and made no such offer to the students on the Dearborn nor Flint campuses.
This is what is driving most graduate students, regardless of their GSI-status, to strike. There are many other proposals that GEO is bargaining for, including childcare subsidies, support for disabled grad students, and support for grad students who have undergone harassment and discrimination.
What has happened recently?
The University Sues GEO
GEO renegotiates a contract with the University every three years, and the current contract is set to expire May 1st, 2023. This corresponds to the end of the Winter semester, and when most GSIs finish their teaching responsibilities for the academic year. In the state of Michigan, it is illegal for public employees to strike. However, GEO has decided that the way negotiations have gone with the University over the past 5 months, there is no other choice but to strike during the contract period as the University is not bargaining in good faith. The University chose to sue GEO for striking illegally and requested an emergency injunction from the court.
On April 10th, a judge ruled that there was no evidence of “irreparable harm” as the university had claimed, and refused to serve an injunction to grads forcing them back to work.
The University Docks April Pay for GSIs
GEO and the University’s HR have been bargaining since November of 2022. The progress has not been significant, and the University has continued to refuse to negotiate many required contract proposals, while offering pay increases significantly below the rate of inflation for graduates on all three UM campuses.
Within the past few weeks, the University has sent out “Attestation Forms” to all GSIs; Google forms that ask each GSI to say whether they have been working throughout April. The University has used this information to withhold pay from all GSIs who did not fill out the form. GEO’s legal counsel advised the Union that it is the University’s responsibility to prove that a GSI has not been working, they cannot make a unilateral requirement without it being included in contractual language, and the lack of filling out a form is not strong evidence of not working. Yet, on April 20th, the University put forth a plan to dock seemingly all GSI pay even those who have continued to work throughout the strike and fill out the Attestation Forms.
This means that graduate students on strike fighting for a living wage are going without a paycheck for a critical month. Striking workers need monetary support now more than ever, and GEO has set up a strike fund to support those who have been deprived of their monthly paycheck. Please consider donating what you can to support academic workers in the ongoing fight for a living wage.
GEO Protestors Detained by Campus Police (off-campus)
Recently, GEO protestors heard of the University President dining out in downtown Ann Arbor. In attempts to talk to the president, GEO members stood outside the restaurant and made attempts to enter, and eventually stood in front of the President’s car as he left. Campus police were called to the off-campus scene and two GEO members were detained. Only after several on-lookers chanted to let the grad workers go, did the police release them. (Sources: 1, 2, 3) This week, UM even sent out a statement declaring their ability to deploy campus police on protests if it meets some given criteria. During protests at work sites a 20 minute drive off campus, campus police were seen monitoring striking workers.
What is next?
Graduate students continue to strike as the semester at the University wraps up. Public support has gained momentum in the forms of social media and through financial contributions. Currently, the University is claiming that the GEO strike and the delayment of grades especially for the undergraduate population will severely harm the students:
“By withholding grades – and asking faculty to do the same – GEO is harming students who need those grades in order to receive financial aid, be eligible for spring and summer classes, and apply for jobs, internships and graduate school,”
– university spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen. (source)
These statements are highly misleading and clear scare tactics. Delayed grades, or the lack of a grade in a class is nothing out of the ordinary. While applying for internships, jobs, scholarships, or graduate programs, there is often a semester of incomplete grades while you apply in the middle of the semester. As for the claim that federal loans could be recalled, or visa statuses would change, this requires the University to deem a student to be in poor academic standing. The University has the power to decide if they want undergraduate students to fall into bad standing because of delayed/incomplete grades. Incomplete grades do not impact your GPA or ability to walk at graduation. (source, source)
An associate Dean issued a statement to faculty, instructing them to scab labor. Faculty have been ordered to grade for classes in which they are not the instructor of record, or for GSIs that support their own class. The Faculty’s Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs pushed against this, asking that “Provost McCauley, President Ono, and the Deans of the various schools respect academic and pedagogic freedom and cease or correct any directives that require faculty or non-academic staff to enter grades in place of GSIs”.
The faculty and staff do not have a union (while lecturers do!). Many vulnerable faculty without tenure and all staff are being forced to grade work for classes they did not teach or are prepared to grade properly. Faculty are being asked by GEO to not grade for GSIs and certainly should not for classes in which they are not the primary instructor. This goes against the strike and undermine’s GEOs power. An open letter signed by the faculty of the history department states that they will all refuse to submit all grades in solidarity with graduate students and demands that the administration negotiate in good faith. Another open letter (currently signed by more than 50 faculty) also states their intention to withhold all grades until the administration negotiates in good faith with the graduate student union.
How can I help?
The primary concern is graduate students losing a month of pay. Please consider donating to the strike fund. Support our cause on social media, and especially if you are directly related to the University you can contact various members of the administration and the elected university regents to make clear your disappointment in their handling of the strike. Stay up to date on our progress by following the union on social media and sign the open letter supporting our strike (signed by over 1900 people). All faculty at Michigan are asked to withhold grades in solidarity with the graduate students. All other questions for allies can be found here.
Article edited by Huei Sears