Attorneys for the University of Michigan and the union representing its striking graduate student employees presented their respective positions at a July 21 hearing before a state-appointed fact finder charged with recommending a non-binding decision in the ongoing contract dispute.
The university’s attorney, Craig Schwartz, said the Graduate Employees’ Organization, whose members are part-time employees, already receive considerable employee benefits and are seeking wage and benefit increases that are both dramatic and unprecedented.
Mark Cousens, a lawyer representing GEO, argued that the union’s longstanding demand for a 60% pay increase for graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants would align U-M with certain peer institutions and help ensure that graduate employees earn enough to pay rent, support families and continue their academic pursuits.
Mark Glazer, the fact finder appointed by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, canceled a second planned hearing since both sides were able to complete their presentations at the first Zoom hearing. Glazer expressed concern that both parties were presenting him with too many issues to consider in the time allotted for him to complete his work.
Both sides will now summarize their positions in written briefs due to Glazer by Aug. 22, after which he will render his decision. The university hopes to receive the recommendations sometime in September, although there is no deadline requirement for a fact finder to submit a report.
“Be specific,” Glazer said. “Don’t make this an impossible burden for me.”
The university and GEO, which represents about 2,300 graduate student employees during the academic year, began negotiating last November. With more than a month before their contract was set to expire, GEO members walked off the job in late March and remained on strike through the remainder of the winter term.
The move violated the contract’s no-strike clause and delayed final course grades for thousands of students. MERC later ruled that the union’s action was a repudiation of the collective bargaining agreement, which expired May 3, and that GEO had committed an unfair labor practice.
A separate decision by Washtenaw County Circuit Judge Carol Kuhnke in April denied the university’s request for a preliminary injunction that would have ordered a halt to the strike. Kuhnke ruled the university did not prove the work stoppage had caused “irreparable harm” to the institution.
Employee wages, which have been perhaps the biggest sticking point in the eight months since bargaining began, played a central role in the fact-finding hearing that covered a wide range of issues still outstanding in the contract talks, from summer health insurance coverage and childcare subsidies to dental copays and employee parking.
GEO began the hearing with a presentation that briefly touched on 12 contract issues and compared its members’ wages to those of graduate student employees at Columbia University, Rutgers University and the University of California system.
The union’s negotiators have proposed a 60% wage increase in the first year of its three-year contract, followed by additional increases tied to inflation in the second and third years. Most GEO members are appointed at 50% effort — or about 16-20 hours per week — for two-thirds of the year.
“This compensation isn’t for beer and pretzels,” Cousens said. “It’s wages paid for work performed.”
The university’s latest pay proposal — the fourth since bargaining began — would provide GEO members on the Ann Arbor campus 12.5% in total raises over the next three years — 5%, 4% and 3.5%, respectively. GEO members on the Dearborn and Flint campuses would receive 6.75% in total raises over the same period.
The university centered its fact-finding presentation Friday on the testimony of two experts – Thomas Finholt, vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs, and Katie DeLong, associate director of Academic Human Resources and the university’s chief negotiator for the GEO contract.
Finholt discussed the financial ramifications of a 60% increase to the university’s general fund budget, which is used to pay GSI and GSSA wages and is funded primarily through tuition dollars and state appropriations. DeLong spoke about the university’s rationale in bargaining decisions across a number of issues, including health-care benefits and tuition waivers.
The testimony included reviewing GEO’s history of contractual wage increases, as well as the annual wage increases of other bargaining units on campus since 2021. The largest annual raise for any union during that time was a 7.5% wage increase for the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council in 2022.
Schwartz, the attorney for U-M, emphasized the long history of successful contract agreements between the university and GEO, which is one of the oldest among graduate employee unions in the U.S. He said that U-M is committed to collective bargaining and working together toward a fair labor contract.
“We shouldn’t rip up 50 years of bargaining history,” Schwartz said.
While a fact finder’s recommendations are non-binding, parties often return to negotiations after fact finding and are frequently able to resolve differences.