A 13-day strike by the Graduate Employees’ Organization will continue as the winter semester draws to a close, after a judge ruled the University of Michigan administration did not prove the work stoppage has caused “irreparable harm” to the institution.
Washtenaw County Circuit Judge Carol Kuhnke on April 10 denied the university’s request for a preliminary injunction that would have ordered a halt to the strike among graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants.
In her ruling, which came at the end of a daylong hearing, Kuhnke said that while the university demonstrated a negative impact to both students and the university, it was not able to meet the high standard of demonstrating “irreparable harm” necessary for the court to grant the injunction.
University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen said that while the university is disappointed in the court’s decision, university officials appreciated the judge’s acknowledgement that U-M students are being harmed.
“The university remains ready and willing to negotiate,” Broekhuizen said. “In the meantime, our top priority continues to be carrying out the educational mission of this university.”
The union, which represents nearly 2,300 GSIs and GSSAs, walked off the job March 29, about four weeks before its contract with U-M was set to expire. U-M filed the complaint in circuit court March 30 alleging breach of contract by the union for striking despite its agreement not to do so while the current contract is in effect.
GEO leaders described Monday’s decision as “a massive victory for graduate workers and working people across the whole state of Michigan.”
“The court upheld workers’ right to strike,” GEO President Jared Eno said. “We’ve been saying all along that the university’s move to use the courts to force workers back on the job was an unjustifiable abuse of the legal system. Today, the court agreed.”
The university has an additional suit in circuit court seeking damages for breach of contract. GEO and U-M also have a number of unfair labor practice charges pending before the Michigan Employment Relations Commission.
The union’s decision to strike is based on several issues the two parties have yet to resolve in a new contract, with compensation being the most significant point of contention. Most GEO members are appointed at 50% effort — or about 16-20 hours per week — for two-thirds of the year.
GEO’s compensation proposal seeks a 60% wage increase in the first year of its contract, and additional increases tied to inflation in the second and third years. The union proposed this raise in November and has not moved from that position despite three counteroffers from the university.
GEO members would earn about $55 per hour next year under GEO’s proposed raise.
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% and 3% — and make roughly $38-$39 per hour by year three.
Meanwhile, the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs issued a statement April 10 asking for a speedy negotiation between the administration and GEO, saying it supports “fair wages and fair negotiation.”
“We are concerned with the university’s request for an injunction and its potential negative impact on the university community. We value both the well-being of all our students and the strength and vitality of the University of Michigan,” read the statement approved by the executive arm of U-M’s central faculty governance system.
Negotiations between the two parties are scheduled to continue April 11-14.
(Note: This story has been updated from its original version to clarify a quote by GEO President Jared Eno.)
I’m curious about the emphasis on the grad workers’ hourly rate: Do GSI’s fill out time sheets each week like temps or undergraduate work studies? As a LEO Lecturer I’m paid a salary in accordance to fractions of a full-time rate. I *could* think of my salary in terms of hourly rate, but that’s not how UM actually disburses my pay, nor how I budget my expenses for the year with this one job.
If my hourly rate is calculated for 12 months (dividing my annual salary by 2080 hrs, as UM does for me) then I make $32/hr.
If my hourly rate is calculated for the 8 months I actually teach (dividing my annual salary by 1386.66 hrs) then I make $48/hr.
If my hourly rate is calculated according to just the times that I must report for duty (dividing my annual salary by 400hrs [my classroom contact hours, and required mtgs] ) then I make $166/hr.
All three ways of describing my pay are true, but they’re not useful because in reality I’m earning a fraction of a maximum lump sum. I’m able to make ends meet with my current salary because I live in Detroit and spend 2-4 hrs a day commuting by bus or carpool. It wouldn’t be enough money if my rent was doubled or tripled if I paid the market rate in Ann Arbor.
Talking about hourly rates is a distraction from the real issue at hand: Will UM commit to paying their grad workers a livable amount of money to sustain them for the calendar year? UM can afford it. UM’s endowment went up 38% in the first year of the pandemic, while they froze the salaries of all non-unionized employees. More than 20K employees saw their wages stagnate while UM’s wealth index went up 38%. What’s the hold up? Share your candy.
Thanks for this helpful framing about hourly rates. The conversation should focus on whether grad students can afford their living expenses. I couldn’t afford to rent in Ann Arbor during my grad program in 2016, and with 80% of grad students being rent-burdened I imagine it’s even harder today. The hourly talking points seem like a distraction from the issue of Ann Arbor’s housing crisis/unaffordability. As a staff member, I think we need to abandon this idea that GEO is asking for too much, especially considering current inflation rates. We should instead think critically about why we aren’t also asking for more. There is a staff unionization effort which you may want to involved in: https://universitystaffunited.org/
I see two takeaways:
– contracts mean nothing and are unenforceable in court.
– the work GEO performed doesn’t rise the to the level of being meaningful enough that their walking off the job before their contract was up causes irreparable harm.
Sounds like a win for the U. No need to recognize GEO or bargain with them in the future, they’re just at-will employees. Why make a contract with someone who you know won’t live up to it and can’t be held to it, especially if the work they do isn’t needed?
I’m being inflammatory of course but you get the point – watch out what ya wish for folks, you just might get it.
Hi T. Cook,
I left a reply to your comment below. Sorry I didn’t see the “reply” button before posting. Have a nice day!
Boy I can’t wait to read the whining from the tenured faculty. “How DARE you ask for more money to do MY work!!” lol
Kudos to Judge Kuhnke. If the university is truly convinced that irreparable harm looms, it should make a fair offer to stave it off. I am tired of watching our wildly talented young scholars live in fear of a vet bill or a rent raise. I am tired of getting endless DEI emails while we are signaling that only young scholars from wealthy families should pursue doctorates. I’m tired of doing graduate recruitment and hearing from our admits that they’d love to come but they simply can’t afford to. I’m genuinely shaken by the fact that HR offered two percent raises to Flint and Dearborn grads at a time where food inflation in Michigan has topped 10 percent. As to Casey Cox’ comment: we support our graduate students’ demand to be paid a living wage. They are our emerging colleagues.
Marginalized students tend to recognize exploitation when they see it.
As I was a low income Pell Grant recipient first generation college student myself, I know it would have been particularly hard for me to have navigated. I empathize and pray for all students, grad students and undergrads, as well as administration, and particularly empathize with those who may not have adequate support.
Really disappointed that these articles and emails keep trying to express the grad students’ salary as an hourly rate based on their half-time appointment. That appointment percentage is just an administrative thing, is it not? With half of their work counting as “training” and half as “employment” even though they generally don’t even have classes after the first year or two?
These are employees that make under $25k a year in Ann Arbor for 50+ hours of work/study/teaching a week year round. They aren’t exactly free to take a second job. It’s disingenuous to make it sound like they want more than they’ve earned and, honestly, the University is wasting everyone’s time and tuition money fighting this instead of just paying their instructors.
Since when do we pay students to study and learn? I agree they should be paid for the hours they work, but not the hours they put towards their studies. Perhaps a new way to determine pay needs to be established for them (a time clock and hourly wage). As for pay, why should they be paid more than most of the staff who work here full time. If we are going to pay student workers with less than 5 years of experience full time wages of over $50,000 for the year when they work part-time and less than 52 weeks a year, then full time staff working 52 weeks a year that have been here for that length of time should be making more than $50K. The reality is that many of us don’t even make that after 30 years. I work full time, have been here for over 30 years, live outside of Ann Arbor (but about 10 miles from campus) in a house with a roommate and survive on less than $25/hour. Perhaps our students need to learn how to live within their means like the rest of us already do as they will have to when they leave.
Staff should absolutely unionize and demand higher wages and protection from capricious firing. But graduate students need to be able to pay the rent. Not sure where you get the 50K figure — they are asking for 38K.
To respond to Thomas Cook’s comment: On your first point, I’d say it’s more along the lines of disagreements about labor practices in signed contracts being acknowledged as appropriate points of legal discussion and negotiation among essential employees and employers.
To the second point, the court agreed with the university that GEO labor is essential to university operations. The court disagreed that striking over a contract disagreement requires a legal injunction that is meant to protect civil order when people and property are under serious threat. But the court agrees that GEO’s labor stoppage disrupts basic university operations, so pretty much the opposite of what you said.
GEO members become faculty members at the most prestigious universities on the world sometimes even before defending their dissertations (in the case of Ph.D. students who are offered faculty jobs in their dissertation defense year, or when they are “ABD”). For others, faculty contracts come within days of earning our degrees. This is a very sizeable portion of employees necessary to run the basic operations of all major universities in the world for the next decades, and no, you cannot distort their bargaining power without eventually talking yourself into a circle.