As you have likely heard by now, the membership of GEO, the union of graduate student workers, has voted to begin a strike this Wednesday morning at 10:24am. Despite additional bargaining on Sunday, GEO and management are still far from an agreement. The strike is open-ended, which is to say that it will continue until GEO members vote to call it off.
While other very important issues also remain unresolved, the top sticking point in negotiations is over salary. You are likely to continue hearing contradictory and misleading claims about graduate students’ pay. Here is the situation:
- Pay for a half-time GSI position is currently $12,026.65 per semester, or $24,053.29 for the eight-month academic year. This is the minimum pay that PhD students can expect. Currently, some departments continue to pay their PhD students at the same rate through the summer (for a total of $36,079.94), some pay at a lower rate during the summer, and some provide no summer pay. Master’s students may not get jobs at all, and if they do, it is often for only one semester at a time, with no summer funding.
- GSIs are most commonly paid half time. Jobs that pay for more than half time are rare because graduate students must also do coursework and/or unpaid research in order to remain eligible for their GSI positions. You may see management or the media describe GSI pay as “$35/hour” or “the equivalent of $72,000 per year.” These figures do not reflect anyone’s actual experience because the structure of graduate students’ work prevents them from being paid full-time year-round.
- GEO has called for a pay rate such that the typical eight-month position for PhD students would pay a living wage of about $38,537.
- Management has offered pay increases in the range of 3-5% per year.
- Rackham Graduate School has recently announced that it will guarantee year-round funding for PhD students. This change would bring the PhD students in departments that do not currently provide summer pay up to the standard of those which do ($36,079.94 at the current rates, or about $37,900 after a 5% increase). The guaranteed summer funding policy would come close to meeting GEO’s living wage demand for PhD students.
- However, there are two problems: the Rackham policy is being presented as non-negotiable and outside the contract, and it does not cover master’s students, whose funding is already much less certain. Only a fraction of master’s students are able to get GSI positions, and when they do, it is often for only one semester and may be for less than half time. GEO is also calling for improvements to make the hiring process for these scarce positions more fair and accessible. About ⅓ of GEO members are master’s students.
- In addition, management refuses to discuss payment for internships, such as those required of students in the School of Social Work. In a strange Catch-22, those interns are not considered employees precisely because they are unpaid.
What will happen
GEO members will stop working, including most GSIs and GSSAs and some GSRAs (research assistants). Instead, they will walk picket lines in front of the entrances to many buildings on campus, carrying signs, chanting, and singing.
The strike is illegal, and management is expected to take GEO to court. It is difficult to predict exactly what might happen after that. Note that the law prohibits coordinated refusal to work, not picketing — so if you join GEO on the picket line, as long as the line is peaceful and orderly, you are not breaking the law. Each picket line will have a picket captain who is trained to interact with the police if necessary.
What GEO is asking of others
Never Cross a Picket Line is a foundational moral principle of solidarity in the labor movement. The more people stop work, the more effective the strike will be, and the sooner it can be resolved. But at a workplace like UM, with many different kinds of workers and several different unions, the practicalities of upholding that principle are very difficult. Staff and other unrepresented workers could face discipline if you refuse work. Recognizing this, GEO’s key request is that others not perform struck work, that is, do not fill in for striking graduate students.
What staff should do
You will have to assess the circumstances in your particular department or workplace. Talk with your immediate coworkers and make a plan; whatever you decide to do, you will be better off doing it together. Here are some possibilities, ranging from the best to the worst situation:
- Some staff may be able to avoid working during the strike, either because you can take approved time off or because your department or supervisor looks the other way.
- If you must work, ask to work from home even if you normally do not. Explain to your supervisor right away that you have a strong moral objection to crossing picket lines. If your request is denied, comply; if you argue or refuse to do as instructed you will be at very serious risk of discipline for insubordination.
- If you must work in a building which is being picketed, try to arrive early and leave late. Pickets are likely to be concentrated during the times when classes are normally held. Much of the power of a GEO strike is about appearances; you will help keep up the morale of the striking workers if neither they nor the press see you go to work.
- If you are asked to take on work normally done by graduate students, express your strong moral reservations and ask your supervisor not to put you in that situation. Clarify whether the request is a directive. If you are directed to perform struck work and you refuse, again, you will be at very serious risk of discipline. We cannot in good conscience advise you to risk your job in support of the strike.
Do what is possible for you, and then forgive yourself for not doing what is not possible. When workers push for change at the very limits of our power, as GEO is doing, we must celebrate what we can accomplish now and then continue to organize for the future.
How else you can help
- Educate your coworkers and help them plan what they will do.
- Attend the start-of-strike rally on Wednesday at 10:24am on the Diag on Central Campus in Ann Arbor.
- Sign up for a picket shift.
- Donate to the strike fund.
- Stay posted for more actions and opportunities.
- Get involved in helping build USU to claim greater security and an independent, democratic, powerful collective voice for staff!