The University of Michigan wants an injunction to force its graduate student employees back into the classroom after they went on strike on Wednesday March 29, 2023. This is not the first time in recent months that there has been a graduate student employee strike. In fact it is becoming a bit of a trend.
But for UM in particular, this is the second graduate student employee strike in only 3 years, the last one taking place in September 2020 over the issue of whether and how the campus would reopen in-person despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of any kind of a vaccine at that time. That strike was eventually settled with increased PPE being provided and some campus policing reforms (This happened right after the summer of widespread BLM protesting).
But in both cases, UM’s leadership decided first to file suits with the court, in 2020 it was a claim of unfair labor practices and now it is the injunction to force work to begin again. This is an attempt at denying the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) their right to strike at all and force them back to the bargaining table.
This started in October 2022 when the GEO began bargaining with the University for a new contract. The GEO represents approximately 2,400 graduate student instructors (GSIs) and staff assistants (SAs), who teach, grade, tutor and do other instruction and administrative work for the school.
But even after months of negotiations, there still is no agreement on wages, health care, childcare subsidies, mental health co-pays, gender transition coverage, emergency funds for international students, and a disarmed campus safety. So as a result, the GEO voted to authorize a strike on March 24, 2023, and walked out on March 29, 2023. The strike is expected to last until April 5, 2023, unless a settlement is reached before then.
So much of the problem is the same issue we have seen in every other graduate student worker strike, low pay and high cost of living. According to GEO, the current minimum annual salary for GSIs and SAs is $24,000, which is below the living wage of $28,000 calculated by MIT for Washtenaw County, where UM is located. In addition, the union claims that rent in Ann Arbor has increased by 37% since 2010, while wages have only increased by 15%, leading the GEO to ask for a 60% wage increase in the first year of the new contract, followed by additional raises in the next two years, which would still only bring the minimum salary to $38,500.
The other issues are improvements in benefits for transgender, international and parenting members. The GEO wants the university to cover 100% of the costs of gender transition health care for trans members and their dependents, instead of the current 50%. Michigan is a swing state and trans rights and healthcare are more and more becoming a wedge issue between Democrats and Republicans. While the current governor, Gretchen Whitmer, has pledged support for LGBTQIA+ causes, it is likely that the University itself wants to walk a tightrope on this issue to avoid being drawn into the general culture war against the trans community.
Furthermore, much like in 2020, the GEO is still concerned about policing. They want to increase the number of unarmed officers to be dispatched to handle non–violent situations and mental health crises that occur on campus.
The university’s response to the strike has again been hostile and legalistic. In addition to recent injunction, the university had already filed a lawsuit alleging breach of contract and seeking economic damages, and is still arguing that the current strike is illegal under the collective bargaining rules, and claims that some of their demands are not in the purview of bargaining.
Whether the strike creates meaningful change is up in the air, but it seems like the frequency of graduate student strikes across the country is only increasing.
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