GEO vs. the University of Michigan

Kathleen Brown

Day One of the GEO strike, March 29, 2023. Photo: GEO Communications Committee

GRADUATE STUDENT WORK­ERS at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, organized as the Graduate Employees’ Organization, AFT Local 3550, have taken on their employer in a months-long campaign struggle. Their six-week strike, the longest in the local’s history, began on March 29 and continued through the end of the winter semester.

As part of a recent upsurge in higher ed militancy, graduate student workers contested the University of Michigan’s neoliberal educational model that relies on precarious, low-paid instructors while charging exorbitant tuition fees.

Graduate student workers are foundational to a U-M degree: almost all undergraduates will take a course taught by a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) during their studies. Yet like other graduate workers elsewhere, grad labor is severely underpaid.

GSIs were paid $24,000 a year, far below the cost of living. Low wages have been further eroded by double-digit rent increases and the rising cost of food, spurring grad workers to demand $38,500 in recent contract negotiations — what economists at MIT identified as a living wage for one person without dependents.

Wider Demands and Ideological Battle

Yet graduate student workers’ contract demands went beyond salary to focus on “demands of dignity” that would improve conditions for those beyond the narrowly defined bargaining unit.

GEO members called for better access to gender-affirming care for all Wolverines, expanded emergency funding for graduate students in abusive situations (a chronic and ongoing problem in academia, given the unchecked power an advisor has over their advisee), disability and COVID accommodations, and funding for an emergency, non-police response team as an alternative to armed police.

In our fight for these demands, graduate workers have taken on one of the nation’s most powerful and wealthiest public higher education institutions, and challenged the balance of power on campus. Through this experience, graduate workers have learned key insights into how to contest management’s power through a long-haul strike.

Ideologically, Human Resources painted our demand for $38,500 as an “unrealistic” 60% wage raise, despite sitting on a University endowment of $17 billion dollars. They insisted that we are “part-time” workers, and thus undeserving of a living wage — despite having the full-time job of teaching, research, and service work.

According to the financial audit by Dr. Howard Bunsis, the low cost of graduate labor and the University’s high tuition means that grad instructors create $200 million in surplus per year. In other words, graduate workers are not a charity case appealing to the Board of Regents with hat in hand, but a fundamental profit maker for the University.

In response to our looming strike vote, the University shifted tack and allocated tens of millions of dollars in additional summer funding for most doctoral students. Practically overnight, thousands of graduate workers’ incomes jumped from $24,000 to $36,000 per year. This critical victory demonstrated what grads had argued all along: that the University could afford to pay us a living wage.

Yet at the bargaining table, HR refused to codify the new funding, arguing that this summer funding was “academic” in nature, not employment-based. U-M’s refusal to put this new funding in a collective bargaining agreement shows that the fundamental conflict is not about money, but power.

In spite of its liberal reputation and governance by a majority of Democrats on the Board of Regents, the University of Michigan intensely opposed graduate workers at every juncture, trying to make an example out of us for the rest of U-M labor.

Administrators countered us with obstruction, legal challenges, withholding pay, retaliation and intimidation, criminalization of picketers, and even falsified grades in an attempt to settle the contract on their terms. Through all of this opposition, graduate workers stood firm: graduate student workers broke Michigan [anti]-labor law and withheld teaching and grading labor for over six weeks. The following is a summation of strategic considerations and key junctures of our 2023 contract campaign.

Long-Haul Strike

From the beginning of the contract campaign, graduate workers knew we had to build enough collective power to strike if we had any hope of winning significant contract gains. Unlike our nine-day strike in 2020, which developed in response to the COVID health crisis and the summer’s uprising for Black Lives, we prepared for a multi-week strike after conversations with recent successful graduate strikers and Labor Notes organizers.

Student workers at Columbia University held out with a 10-week strike in 2021-2022, teaching assistants at Temple University struck for five weeks in winter 2023, and wildcat strikers at the University of California-Santa Cruz struck for 16 weeks in 2019. They demonstrated that longer-term strikes were more successful in the higher education setting because of the iterative nature of teaching and research.

A short, time-limited strike would not give us enough leverage to move the University significantly. Indeed, the University can easily wait out a one or two-week strike with little interruption of University operations. In contrast, we learned to think of our disruptive power as cumulative in nature. The strike was not a time-limited moment, but an ongoing  disruption that increased our leverage over time.

Grades were a particular point of leverage because they were the “product” the University needed. Without grades, the University would have difficulty matriculating students, fulfilling required course credits, and meeting internal funding deadlines. This was borne out at the end of the semester when University officials increasingly ratcheted up the pressure on faculty submit grades, regardless of how they came up with them.

The Fight for Open Bargaining

Our first campaign fight was over the conditions of bargaining. From November 2022 to January 2023, graduate student workers fought for bargaining so that all union members — and even members of the public — could observe.

Traditionally, labor negotiations are led by a small bargaining team behind closed doors; members rely on the bargaining team to communicate what happens at the table and advise on what members should accept. Open bargaining turned this dynamic on its head: instead of relying on a small bargaining team to represent workers’ interests behind closed doors, hundreds of graduate workers could directly hear HR’s reasoning for why they didn’t deserve a living wage.

The University of Michigan’s Human Resources department fought for months to push through ground rules that would have limited the number of observers and restricted Zoom attendance. (Starbucks has taken a similar position, attempting to only have in-person bargaining, as a way to limit transparency and participation.)

When we would not back down, HR imposed a state mediator in an attempt to intimidate us. We responded with a march on Human Resources representative Katie DeLong, delivering hundreds of letters written by GEO members, and later picketed incoming President Santa Ono’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion event, stating that there could be no DEI without a living wage.

The University’s intransigence ultimately failed: over the course of the campaign, over one thousand workers and labor allies attended bargaining in person and on Zoom. Open bargaining created a large layer of workers who were deeply invested in negotiations.

Graduate workers talked to their co-workers about management’s latest buffoonery and caucused together to craft counter-proposals, in real time. Hearing management tell us directly how little they knew or cared about graduate workers had a radicalizing effect: at one point lead negotiator Katie DeLong called students at U-M Flint and Dearborn campuses a “different class of student.”

As labor organizer Jane McAlevey argued, if we could not control the conditions under which we bargained, how could we expect to win the contract we needed? Thus the fight over bargaining conditions was the first step toward winning a living wage.

While we placed importance on bargaining attendance, we maintained that we did not expect real wins to come from clever arguments at the table but from our ability to build enough power outside. The University hoped that time spent at the bargaining table would grind our proposals down to something they would approve, but members repeatedly voted to preserve our key demands.

Willingness to Break (anti) Labor Law

As months at the bargaining table failed to produce concrete wins, members escalated their actions. This involved classic structure tests that got progressively more workers involved: signing a petition, attending bargaining, participating in rallies and demonstrations, signing an “action readiness pledge,” and finally pledging to strike, culminating in a 95% strike authorization vote by GSIs with a super-majority turnout in March 2023.

On March 29 at 10:24 AM, over one thousand graduate workers “walked away from 24k,” marching through campus to the administrative building where grad workers pasted our demands to the door.

Since 1947, striking has been illegal for public employees in the state of Michigan under the Public Employees’ Relation Act (PERA). In 2020, our nine-day COVID strike was ended by the University’s decision to file an injunction against the union. Unsure of our ability to take on a big legal fight, union members voted to return to work.

Thus in 2023, we knew we would need to prepare to be enjoined and that the University would attempt to sue us back into the classroom. If the judge ruled against us and we still continued to strike, our union could face thousands of dollars in fines and even possible (although unlikely), arrest of union officers.

Prepared for this possibility, GEO members indicated their willingness to break the law. Predictably, U-M filed for a temporary restraining order and a court order to get us back to work.

In April, 400 GEO members marched to the Washtenaw County Courthouse and picketed outside, while others observed prominent lawyers from Butzel Long (the same firm that represented former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in Flint’s poisoned water case) floundering along.

With the University unable to show proof that our strike caused “irreparable harm,” Judge Carol Kuhnke denied the injunction. Elated, graduate workers took over the streets and marched back to campus.

When the University failed to end the strike through legal challenges, Human Resources turned to retaliation. They mandated that GSIs must weekly “attest” that they were working in order to be paid.

Those who did not fill out attestation forms lost their April paycheck. Withheld pay proved painful, and some GSIs lost 12% of their annual salary. GEO raised over $300,000 in our hardship fund, but because our parent union American Federation of Teachers does not have a strike fund, most strikers lost their entire paychecks.

Falsified Grades as Strike-Breaking Tactic

GEO Communications Committee

As the end of the semester approached and thousands of assignments went ungraded, highly paid University administrators like Provost Laurie McCauley (salary $574,000), the College of Literature, Sciences, and Arts Dean Anne Curzan (Salary $509,000), and LSA Associate Dean Tim McKay (salary $195,000) increased pressure on faculty to come up with missing grades.

On April 17, Associate Dean McKay instructed faculty on how they should calculate grades without GSI labor, telling faculty to give full credit on all outstanding assignments. In departments where GSIs were sole Instructors of Record, grades were fabricated outright by Department Chairs.

English Chair Gaurav Desai wrote to GSIs: “We have no choice in this matter. None of us are doing this willingly…We do not have any mechanisms for submitting ‘real’ grades. So any students with outstanding grades will receive an ‘A.’”

Comparative Literature Chair Christopher Hill used McKay’s instructions to submit grades: “I filed grades today for the seven sections of COMPLIT 122 whose instructors are on strike, and for COMPLIT 241…Overall, I used an approach specified by LSA…I did not evaluate any student work.”

In the Germanic Department, Chair Andreas Gailus also admitted to inventing grades: “My plan, at the moment, is to give straight ‘A’s to all students in GSI-taught classes…I should also mention that the Dean’s office has been putting a lot of pressure since the end of the semester.”

In some departments, faculty members who did not (or could not) grade assignments in time were threatened with loss of merit pay and future appointments. Since the end of the semester, hundreds of GSIs have documented how grades were calculated without grading assignments, while others have documented complete grade fabrication.

Picketers in Handcuffs

The University of Michigan used the University’s Department of Safety and Security (DPSS) to increasingly surveil and intimidate picketers as the strike wore on. When graduate workers picketed events that millionaire President Santa J. Ono was to attend, police showed up in force. When picketers chanted outside the President’s Award and a School of Information “Fireside Chat,” President Ono’s chauffeured cars turned around.

On April 20, the same day Human Resources announced withheld pay from striking graduate workers, graduate workers found President Ono eating dinner in downtown Ann Arbor. After the picketing in front of the restaurant, Ono fled out the back door to his tinted-window SUV.

Graduate workers stood in front of his car with their hands out, demanding their lost paychecks, while the chauffeur pushed the car into the picketers. Undeterred, graduate workers stood firm and Ono called the university police, who responded to the off-campus call by handcuffing and detaining two graduate workers.

Only after bystanders began chanting were the two striking graduate workers released. The University filed charges against the graduate workers on April 29. Local Prosecutor Eli Savit, however, refused to pursue charges.

The University’s willingness to detain and file charges against graduate student workers instead of paying a living wage is not isolated to the University of Michigan. At the University of California-San Diego, UC administrators charged 59 graduate student workers with “physical assault,” and “disruption of university activities” when they protested an awards ceremony led by UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, who refused to implement a negotiated wage increase.

More recently, two UCSD graduate student workers and one post-doc were arrested by UCSD police for chalking pro-union slogans on University sidewalks and buildings. They face felony charges of conspiracy and vandalism. Both the experience of U-M graduate student workers and those at USCD show that University administrators see graduate student workers, organized and mobilized, as a direct threat.

The Threat of a Fall Strike

The impact of our six-week strike was not immediately felt, and grad workers continued to bargain over the summer, uncertain of if (or when) we would see substantive movement from management.

Finally, on August 2 the Board of Regents (majority Democrats) extended an “exploding offer” to graduate workers. The conditions of the offer required it to be ratified within 48 hours or with­drawn. Members viewed this as the first “real” offer from management that included several concessions on the part of the University: codifying summer funding to all Ph.D. students in the Rackham Graduate School in a side letter, and increasing salaries of Graduate Student Instructors in Ann Arbor by 20% across the life of the contract.

By 2026, Ph.D. students would be making over $43,000 on the Ann Arbor campus. As an incentive to not strike, the Regents offered a $1000 bonus to Fall GSIs.

At the same time, the offer excluded Dearborn PhDs and Ann Arbor Doctor of Musical Arts (DMAs) from the living wage proposal and would reinstate inequitable pay for Dearborn GSIs — reversing a hard-fought victory from 2017.

Nor did the University make much movement on COVID and disability accommodations, childcare subsidies, or gender-affirming health care, despite the low cost to the University.

Uncowed by the threat of the exploding offer, members voted to initiate a “Week of Discussion” to consider our next steps. Throughout dozens of meetings, grad workers collectively expressed that management’s August 2 offer fell short in the above areas, and on August 10 close to 900 GEO members voted overwhelmingly to send a counteroffer to HR.

The Settlement

GEO action on U-M Commencement Day. GEO Communications Committee

GEO members were right not to be intimidated. Management responded by passing back their August 2 offer at the next bargaining session, very much unexploded.

This offer constituted the floor for negotiations and even included some new concessions, such as expanded Transitional Funding for all graduate students, not just graduate instructors. This would establish a fund that would permit graduate students to leave abusive supervisors without jeopardizing their funding. Additionally, the offer committed President Santa Ono to make a statement about our proposed non-police emergency response team.

Still, there was no movement on parental leave, Dearborn parity, DMAs, or low fractions, and the proposed bonus had been rescinded.

When GEO members voted to sidestep the University’s “exploding offer” timeline, management began actively preparing for strike-breaking. GSIs were threatened with losing their paychecks again or being removed completely from their courses.

Instructors of Record courses have been a key target by management as they are a major source of leverage; IoR classes taught by sole instructors are more easily disrupted by a strike. In departments like German and Comparative Literature, Department Chairs attempted to remove Instructors of Record by rearranging course offerings; German canceled all classes normally taught by GSis. In Psychology, GSI Instructors of Record have been asked to find their own replacement instructors in order to be approved to teach in the fall.

As the start of the semester neared, GEO President Jared Eno requested the University pass back its last best and final offer. On August 20, the University’s final offer included a living wage for Ann Arbor PhDs, expanded Transitional Funding, doubled parental leave, restored Fall 2023 bonuses, and dozens of concessions won throughout the nine-month campaign.

Although the offer did not reflect everything graduate workers wanted, it is a victory for graduate students that validates the strategy of the long-haul strike. On August 22, members overwhelmingly voted to accept the offer and to permit all members, whether teaching or not, to vote on its ratification.

Graduate student workers’ militancy and refusal to back down until we have won have unsettled campus labor and the Michigan labor movement.

Our strategy is a departure from standing management-labor relations, where labor sometimes threatens collective action but never truly gets out of control. These campaigns often defer to friendly relationships with the Regents at the University of Michigan who are Democrats and offer smaller concessions in exchange for labor peace.

In contrast, graduate student workers have engaged in a real contestation of power through our open-ended, long-haul strike. We have focused on building our own power first and foremost, bringing more and more workers into the contract campaign.

From securing open bargaining, defeating a court injunction, withstanding withheld pay, witnessing falsified grades and faculty scabbing, to facing down an exploding offer and the threat of fall termination, graduate student workers have endured challenge after challenge and prevailed. We built real workplace power that privileges a militant fight-back above all else, an approach we hope more of the labor movement takes up.

September-October 2023, ATC 226

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