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  • Writer's pictureBecca Dzombak

Our graduate student union is fighting for our benefits - again

This year, the Graduate Employees' Organization - the graduate students' union here at Michigan - is in the bargaining process. Each week, for months on end, a team of graduate student bargainers are fighting for benefits for all the graduate students at our university.

Unions have a strong history of supporting workers in our country. Their purpose is to prevent workers from being exploited, to give them power within economic structures, and to elevate their voices in discussions of compensation and working conditions. While I doubt any of my peers would argue that our working conditions are akin to child labor in Industrial Revolution factories, I know many of us agree that the workload graduate students do teaching undergraduates at universities is undervalued and overlooked when it comes to university finances.

Courtesy of GEO-3550.

At Michigan, graduate student instructors (GSIs) account for about 25% of all student contact hours, yet costs associated with us comprise a sliver of the University's budget. We've had a union since 1975 - one of the oldest in the country, and one of only a few dozen recognized graduate student unions today - and because of that, we're doing better than the vast majority of our peers across the country. Over the years, the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) here has won a number of critical benefits, including health care (recently, an extension of benefits to same-sex partners and trans people), raises (although they typically barely match inflation and ignore cost of living), anti-discrimination policies, and tuition waivers (because although as teachers and researchers, we're employees, we also get charged tuition). GEO has done excellent work expanding protections and rights of the university's graduate instructors, as key cogs in the machines of education and research.

The benefits and expenses many graduate student unions are requesting - raise rates that do better than barely matching inflation, dental care that covers more than a cleaning, inclusive coverage for their trans and nonbinary colleagues - should be a no-brainer. It isn't a good look for universities to deny that they care about these things, and by fighting against these crucial changes, their actions speak louder than their words. To truly provide support for graduate student parents, or students with mental health issues, or international graduate students, universities need to put their money where their mouths are.

The number of universities with graduate student unions is growing, and that's in part because of the successful models existent unions provide. They're being met with roadblocks, such as the proposed law that would deem graduate students at private universities not employees with the right to unionize. To help push the movement forward and show that graduate students across the country are united in this effort, we have to continue pushing at each university. During the last round of bargaining here, in 2017, a walkout was authorized by the union members - significant because, as government employees, it is technically illegal for graduate students to go on strike. But we, as a group, cared strongly enough about fighting for these changes that we authorized it. Thankfully, it didn't come to that - the university realized that its graduate students are serious (shocker) and gave up their ground. And this year, we're back at it.

The ongoing round of bargaining here at Michigan has some exciting items on the table, ranging from relatively small (in terms of cost) but important items like gender-inclusive restrooms to costlier items like retirement accounts and improved dental/vision coverage. The bargaining itself is intense to watch: a group of dedicated graduate students up again a team of university lawyers, fighting for benefits and protections that would support every graduate student at the university. Graduate students are invited to come and watch, to be a physical presence and show of support, as well as to ask questions of the student bargaining team during breaks. The act of having, at times, hundreds of graduate students sitting and watching sends a statement to the university: we're here, we care, and we support what our bargaining team is doing.

The breadth of platform items this year (listed below) are ambitious, but crucial for the support, well-being, and training of our university's graduate students and future instructors. They reflect our desire to rectify longstanding racial and gender inequities and our request to be treated as valued members of an academic community - and that means investing in us.

Courtesy of GEO-3550.

Obviously, we are lucky to have such a strong, historical graduate student union here at Michigan. Our predecessors worked hard to establish the benefits and protections that we have today, and we have to do the same for the graduate students who will follow us - not only at Michigan, but at universities across the country. We have to keep pushing forward so that other unions will follow in our wake, and hopefully find the path a little easier for our efforts.

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