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.)