U-M seeking state mediator for GEO negotiations

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The University of Michigan is asking the Michigan Employment Relations Commission to appoint a state mediator to help reach agreement on early points of contention in its contract negotiations with the Graduate Employees’ Organization.

At issue in the negotiations, which began Nov. 17, are who can attend negotiations, the number of people allowed to participate in bargaining and how the meetings will be conducted.

GEO represents nearly 2,300 graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants. The union’s current contract with the university expires May 1, 2023.

GEO officials currently propose bargaining in rooms that accommodate as many as 160 in-person attendees. The move to bargain in rooms of that size is unprecedented for campus labor negotiations, which typically occur in rooms accommodating 50 people or fewer.

In addition to large rooms, GEO leaders also proposed that attendees and possible speakers in bargaining sessions include all GEO members and union-invited guests, which include anyone the union believes has a relevant interest in specific items up for discussion.

The university’s position is that smaller sessions with the bargaining teams and a limited number of bargaining unit observers provide a more conducive environment for progress and are universally regarded as a best practice in labor negotiations.

“Negotiating in the environment proposed by GEO makes the creative problem solving and frank discussions that occur in negotiations between the parties much more difficult,” said Sascha Matish, associate vice provost and senior director for academic human resources. “With this type of open, public negotiations, it is significantly more challenging to get to the important work of reaching agreement on a new contract.”

Nevertheless, Matish said, U-M negotiators have offered to meet in larger rooms through December. This is designed to meet GEO’s interests, as long as certain structures are in place, including parameters on speaking opportunities for non-bargaining-team members and timely notice about outside subject-matter experts giving testimony in upcoming bargaining sessions.

“The university is committed to bargaining in good faith with the union in order to reach agreement on a new contract that is good for the members of the bargaining unit and the university,” Matish said.

The Academic Human Resources Office, which administers academic collective bargaining agreements for the university, will regularly publish updates on the negotiation process on its website, and GEO has information about its positions on its website.

“The university continues to mischaracterize our position as unprecedented and challenging, when, in reality, graduate workers are simply asking to have respectful, equitable access to contract negotiations that dictate almost every aspect of our lives. This drives GEO’s request that bargaining take place in large rooms and with Zoom accommodations for attendees who need it,” said GEO Vice President Ember McCoy.

“It’s disappointing that the university continues to assert that bargaining should exclusively take place in person, despite regular Zoom meetings with union leaders, ignoring the needs of our most vulnerable community members. Examples of the open bargaining process we desire can be seen at labor negotiations in the university’s early and recent history, and is practiced by unions at workplaces throughout the country.

“GEO is a democratic organization committed to transparency, and we hope that U-M demonstrates they share those priorities by meeting with the union’s chosen representative, as labor law requires.”

Under GEO’s current contract, graduate student instructors work part-time, generally appointed at 50% effort, or 16-20 hours per week. They earn $24,050 for two, four-month semesters, which would extrapolate to about $72,155 in full-time annual pay.

The existing contract also includes comprehensive health insurance with no monthly premium; a tuition waiver of up to $12,947 per semester for in-state students and up to $26,062 per semester for out-of-state students; and a child-care subsidy for student parents starting at $3,043 per semester for one child and up to $6,631 per semester for three or more children.

The union’s proposed changes for the new contract include a 60% pay raise in the first year of the contract, as well as cuts to certain benefit copays and out-of-pocket health-care costs.

Ground rules for bargaining sessions have been in the works since this summer, when GEO leaders sent U-M proposed rules that covered the location where bargaining would take place, called for a room capacity of 30-50 for bargaining sessions and indicated that the university would be responsible for reserving meeting rooms.

In October, GEO leaders withdrew the previously submitted ground rules and requested auditorium-style meeting venues with a capacity of 200-300 people and a Zoom option with an unlimited number of observers attending negotiations.

The university previously proposed alternative options, including hosting up to three negotiating sessions in large meeting rooms and providing a Zoom link for members of GEO’s bargaining team who cannot attend in person.

In early November, the university proposed bringing in an independent mediator to help the two parties sort through the logistical disagreements.

Bargaining sessions are scheduled weekly on Fridays at 9 a.m.

(Note: This article has been updated from its original version to reflect comments from GEO.)

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Comments

  1. Robert Mason
    on December 4, 2022 at 2:00 pm

    Sascha Matish’s comments are misleading and false. We are not seeking “public negotiations.” We want accessible avenues to bargaining for our members, not the general public. Furthermore, it is incredibly disingenuous to imply that all GSI contracts would add up to $72,155 in full-time annual pay. That is simply untrue and does not account for a wide range of appointment percentages.

  2. Amir Fleischmann
    on December 4, 2022 at 2:02 pm

    I really don’t understand why the University is against transparency. Grad students are all affected by the outcomes of these negotiations and must be allowed to watch them happen. Academic HR knows grad students won’t like hearing them say we don’t deserve a living wage, protections from sexual harassment, affordable healthcare, etc. They think if grad students are kept out of the bargaining room it will be easier to foist a bad contract on them.

    It’s really sad that the University is behaving like this. I expected better from the new president.

  3. Leah Bernardo-Ciddio
    on December 4, 2022 at 2:05 pm

    Dear Don, thank you for writing this piece. I must address, however, the paragraphs about our salaries as graduate workers at U-M. Tuition waivers are a matter of the university shifting money from one of their accounts to another. This is money that never comes to us. PhD students in this country for the most part receive tuition wavers. None of this ever enters our bank account. This is like saying that the budget that is set aside for office supplies or for utility costs in university buildings are part of a staff member’s salary. It is obviously a ridiculous concept.

    Secondly, I am not sure why there is any statement here about what our salaries would extrapolate to. We are not allowed to pursue full-time “work” because, barring fellowship years, we work half-time as GSIs or GSRAs, and work half-time as researchers for the university. We are thus paid $24,050 for the majority of the year to engage in these two part-time jobs. The rest of the year, we can take on full-time work, providing we do not have summer research tasks. As an archaeologist I am expected to continue my work as a researcher in the summer at great cost. If we made $72,000 a year we would not be doing so as graduate workers at U-M. That is simply not what our salary is. If I had two wings and a propeller I’d be a plane but I simply don’t have those things. Let’s keep the conversation honest. Our REAL salary is well below the cost of living.

    Finally, on our salary (which is $24,050, not $72K), we are struggling to deal with co-pays and that’s why we are demanding their removal or reduction. I have long-time physical conditions and I have to choose between paying DTE for my energy bill or between paying co-pays for physical therapy, medication, and mental healthcare. I gave up on physical therapy even though I still need it for a shoulder injury (a consequence of my job as an archaeologist) and have very limited mental healthcare because I cannot afford my co-pays. I paid extra money for Dental 2 this year only to find out that I would not have any coverage for an implant or bridge I need because I am losing a tooth. Instead I am writing this comment while trying to ignore the throbbing pain in my jaw because I do not have an extra $3,000 in my budget to pay for an implant.

    We are employees of one of the wealthiest institutions of the country and yet we are going to foodbanks. We are going without medical treatments that we need. Please spare us this comment about how our salary could be extrapolated. It could be extrapolated to a million dollars, but that does not make it real.

    What can we extrapolate from? U-M’s 17.3 billion dollar endowment. This institution is swimming in dollars. But it allows its workers – and not just graduate workers – to forgo medical procedures as it cries poor but charges exorbitant tuition. What can we extrapolate about this university as an institution supposedly committed to DEI, justice, and progress when they fail to pay their workers appropriately and use this forum to misrepresent what they pay us? You decide.

  4. S Yeager
    on December 4, 2022 at 2:16 pm

    I’m troubled by a lot of this, but especially the explicit statement that GSIs work at 50% effort. How insulting, as a GSI currently grading student papers on a Sunday despite having a qualifying exam tomorrow, to be told that I’m only putting forth 50% effort.

    Extrapolating a larger salary is one thing, but the actual situation for GSIs is another. I work two jobs so that I can pay my rent. I don’t use air conditioning over the summer and didn’t turn on my heat until two weeks ago so that I can afford to travel for conferences and do my research. Even if that number were accurate (it’s not, as others have noted), if it doesn’t match the situation that graduate students find themselves living in, why is the university proud of it?

    Finally, I want to note that it’s critically important for both the university’s HR team as well as my fellow union members to hear from the invited guests that we’ll bring to the table. I contributed to the trans health proposals, and the professionals we plan to invite to speak with us have expertise on surgeries, insurance, and trans healthcare–things that everyone should hear about. I’m worried at the lack of transparency that the university seems to want around these negotiations. If the university is committed to trans health and all the other proposals graduate students are proposing, why not share those conversations with everyone? What is there to hide?

  5. Allen Kendall
    on December 4, 2022 at 2:21 pm

    Can I use this logic elsewhere? “Dear landlord, I only spend 40% of my time in this apartment, so if you extrapolate, this $400 I’m giving you is the same as paying $1000”

  6. Conrad Kosowsky
    on December 4, 2022 at 2:29 pm

    It would be amazing if I could spend those extrapolated dollars on real food…

    Really not sure why the University wants to keep us from observing bargaining. If I’m going to be voting on a tentative agreement at the end of our current contract, I want to be able to see how it’s getting made.

  7. Scott Neville
    on December 4, 2022 at 2:29 pm

    Happy to see the 72k figure has disappeared from the article – gj.

    Might be nice to include (any of) the arguments from GEO here in the comments into the article, since comments are unavailable until one logs in.

    Personally, reading HR’s arguments I find myself asking ‘why?’ a lot – the claims seem unsubstantiated and unquestioned. It’s not at all clear to me why “Negotiating in the environment proposed by GEO makes the creative problem solving and frank discussions that occur in negotiations between the parties much more difficult” – we’ve asked for a silent audience of graduate students. These are educated adults we trust to teach classes and lead discussion sessions, how will these observers threaten the discussion?

    Not here, but in separate meetings I’ve attended with Dr. DeLong, we’ve been told that an audiance, going in and out, would lack a ‘consistent narrative’ of the discussion. To me, this seems both easy to fix (let’s keep notes and share those too!) and absurd (we *teach* what hypotheticals are).

  8. Erin Markiewitz
    on December 4, 2022 at 3:13 pm

    Smaller bargaining sessions are not conducive to efficient bargaining. Smaller sessions are conducive to avoiding institutional accountability, a consistent practice of this university and this publication. That’s why labor relations consultants consider smaller rooms to be a best practice. Workers in democratic unions consider larger sessions to be best practice. As such, this statements’ description of the best practices of labor negotiations is inaccurate and misleading.

    In the past, the university has allowed LEO (the non-tenure track faculty union) to invite allies to bargaining. Graduate workers should be entitled to the similar measures that are inclusive of allies and others who are affected by our contract, even those who are not currently employed as GSIs or GSSAs.

    I expected better from President Ono. Growing up in Cincinnati OH, all of my friends would brag about how he treated members of UC’s community with respect. I hope President Ono takes steps to demonstrate a commitment to treating graduate workers with dignity. The first step could be now.

  9. Daniel Weaver
    on December 4, 2022 at 4:58 pm

    If the “extrapolated” $72,000 salary suggested here infuriates many graduate workers and students — and it does — this is partly because even if year-round GSI-ships were widely available — they aren’t — few graduate students would be able to take them without substantively limiting our capacity to perform the other half of our job, namely research and the production of knowledge which is the purpose of the university in the first place.

    Indeed, at least in my discipline, teaching doesn’t mean much at all if it is separated in this way from research. I imagine this fact is immediately obvious to teaching and research faculty, yet university administrators appear not to know it. Are they willfully blind to the purpose of the institution at which they work and from which they draw a real rather than an “extrapolated” salary?

    As it turns out, they aren’t. On more public platforms the University has and will continue to stake its excellent reputation on the “unpaid” research work done by graduate students during the time which this article blithely suggests GSIs might choose to spend working in positions the university does not in fact offer. Some of this research work, so precious in one context yet invisible in another, is in practice subsidized by the wages of second or third jobs taken because the wages provided by the university are too low.

    This is the general context of the current contract negotiations from which conclusions about the University’s stated concerns over process should be drawn.

  10. Jennifer Piemonte
    on December 4, 2022 at 6:45 pm

    I notice that a quote from Academic HR personnel is included, but there is no mention of an attempt to reach out to GEO representatives for comment.

    Were you trying to fairly cover this story or are you aiming to present a biased narrative?

    • Jennifer Piemonte
      on December 8, 2022 at 10:50 am

      Thank you for updating the article and including GEO’s side as well.

  11. Silke-Maria Weineck
    on December 4, 2022 at 9:14 pm

    This is an odd paragraph: “ Under GEO’s current contract, graduate student instructors work part-time, generally appointed at 50% effort, or 16-20 hours per week. They earn $24,050 for two, four-month semesters, which would extrapolate to about $72,155 in full-time annual pay.” it insinuates that graduate students are paid a living wage, but we all know that they cannot work during any of the hours not covered by the official employment hours, because they are employed qua graduate students and hence need all the other hours graduate-studenting. And unless they have access to family money, they simply cannot live on what we do pay them. It’s like giving someone a third of a sandwich and telling them it’s quite a nice lunch if you count the other two thirds.

  12. Anna Stabnick
    on December 4, 2022 at 9:39 pm

    As a graduate worker, I am as deeply concerned with the framing of our workload, pay, and hours as others have already noted here. It is infuriating to see this kind of dismissal of graduate student work at the University as “50% effort”: Every graduate student instructor I know, many of whom who are teaching multiple sections a week, making their own lesson plans, and creating extra office hours for their students regularly (really being the backbone of the education that this university provides), report often going over the hours they are hired to work in order to put forth the kind of effort that this work deserves.
    However, the above frustration was not what I intended to write about when starting to write this comment, as I’ve seen that others have already expressed my exact sentiments. As a union member who has been at bargaining sessions, I really wanted to address how this article frames the decisions that were made over how graduate workers are represented in the bargaining room. The way this is written makes it seem like our decision to have bargaining take place in large rooms for membership to be present was a frivolous one – this could not be further from the truth. This was a decision made after much consideration and research into why this bargaining format is useful and important for ensuring negotiations reflect the voices of our membership, including best practices for how this can be done effectively and in a way that is conducive to progress. The pushback we’ve received from HR on our plans to bargain in ways that ensure transparency for workers and our ability to have experts present to comment on issues relating to our workplace conditions sends a very clear message – the university does not want its graduate workers to have a say in what our working conditions look like. That it has been the most difficult to advocate for the attendance of members via Zoom tells us that this is especially true for the graduate workers with the most at stake in this contract – those who have not felt safe at work due to the university’s weak pandemic protections, those with children at home, and those who drive long distances to do our incredibly important educational work, to name a few.

  13. Karthik Ganapathy
    on December 4, 2022 at 9:40 pm

    What is missing from this article is that the lawyers on the university’s bargaining team are all fairly new to the university and constantly lie to us about our university’s history. For example, Katie DeLong from Academic HR explicitly told us that in the past, public hadn’t been allowed to campus negotiations. Fortunately, almost all grad workers present in the room had attended negotiations for other unions (like LEO) and we were able to quickly caucus and correct the record. Without transparent negotiations, Katie would get away with such lies and hold back negotiations.

    I also found this from the 1975 GEO negotiation bulletin:
    https://twitter.com/geo3550/status/1599588577314099201
    This also clearly contradicts Sascha Matish’s statement about public being in campus negotiations, a

  14. Karthik Ganapathy
    on December 4, 2022 at 9:52 pm

    This also clearly contradicts Sascha Matish’s statement about how the way we have proposed negotiations happen is “challenging” to reach an agreement — the 1975 contract negotiations was a landmark agreement that ensured workers wouldn’t be discriminated based on sexual orientation and ensured affirmative action protections for grad students.

    Not to mention, this whole 72k propaganda is subtly erasing the existence of immigrant grad students who legally cannot be paid for more than 20 hours a week during the fall and winter, cannot work outside the university without jumping through legal loopholes, and cannot find teaching positions in the summer as there are roughly 150 GSI positions in the summer (compared to 2000+ in the fall and winter).

    Stop behaving like children and come back to the negotiations table.

  15. Rhiannon Willow
    on December 4, 2022 at 11:39 pm

    Along with all the other well-thought-out comments above, I’ll mention that the university’s ongoing conduct is illegal. State law specifies a union has the unilateral right to represent itself in the manner of its choosing. That is, we as a union can decide to represent ourselves with as many grad students as we wish, and the university has no say in the matter. And ground rules are a “permissive” bargaining topic, meaning that parties can mutually agree to bargain over them, but we can also decline to do so, and the university is not allowed to stall negotiations over this disagreement.

    Additionally, the university continues to knowingly lie about what we as a union are demanding: we have never asked for public negotiations. We want a large group of union members / graduate workers, as well as a smaller number of invited guests with knowledge relevant to our proposals to be present. We have repeatedly clarified this to HR, and they continue to lie about our demands to make it easier to argue against us.

    What a disgrace. President Ono has repeatedly committed to improving transparency within the university’s administration, and so far, we have been experiencing the exact opposite!

  16. Yuliya Shyrokonis – she her hers
    on December 5, 2022 at 9:59 am

    The phrase “They earn $24,050 for two, four-month semesters, which would extrapolate to about $72,155 in full-time annual pay” seems intentionally misleading. Graduate students early close to $24k (with variation among students and departments) per YEAR, not $72k. There is no possible “extrapolation to full-time pay” because graduate students’ extremely demanding schedules, which include conducting research that benefits the face of the University, very rarely allow for higher appointments. $24k is barely enough to survive in Ann Arbor, where the University is located. For some, such as those with dependents, it is NOT enough. This is why the Graduate Union is bargaining with the University (many of whose bargaining representatives, by the way, make $115k or more annually).

    • Yuliya Shyrokonis – she her hers
      on December 5, 2022 at 10:09 am

      Correction to my own comment – I believe the $24k base rate may not actually vary by department

  17. Katherine McDonald
    on December 6, 2022 at 11:11 am

    The quote “Under GEO’s current contract, graduate student instructors work part-time, generally appointed at 50% effort, or 16-20 hours per week. They earn $24,050 for two, four-month semesters, which would extrapolate to about $72,155 in full-time annual pay” is absolutely ridiculous.

    For context, I am a graduate student who spends up to 40 hours a week in a research laboratory, which is conveniently not included in their 16-20 hour labor estimate. Additionally, my contract with the university explicitly forbids me from any paid work opportunities outside of my lab. The salary they choose to pay me is my sole source of income.

    This quote is intentionally misleading.

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