It has been a few busy, radical months for U of M graduate assistants
ANN ARBOR, MI – It’s raining, and commencement is about to start. There is a two-mile line around the stadium, and clumps of students are checking their phones and drinking from tiny liquor bottles. The Graduate Employees Organization has a tailgating tent set up with free coffee and donuts for picketers. There are five large bags filled with picket signs, and several piles of colorful fliers. I woke up at six AM to get here, and the fresh coffee tasted good. It gives me the energy I’ll need for the three-hour picket ahead of me. I drank it quickly, found my sign and then my place on the picket line.
University of Michigan Graduate Workers have been on strike since March 29th. The Graduate Employees Organization represents more than two thousand student workers. The GEO is on strike demanding higher wages, an international graduate student emergency fund, improved healthcare plans for transgender workers, improved care related to mental health, more childcare subsidies, safer work environments, payments for SW placements, and smaller class sizes.
The GEO consists of 1,315 graduate student instructors and staff assistants. At the University of Michigan, graduate student professors teach undergraduate courses and in exchange receive tuition waivers. Assistants help with programming in addition to other tasks. In addition to this full-time work, they have courseloads to keep up with. The graduate student instructors do not make a living wage as opposed to full-time tenured professors, despite doing the same labor. It is an exploitative system.
The GEO and the University have been negotiating since November, but U-M has not been negotiating in good faith. University Human resources have only offered a slight increase in pay, one that doesn’t account for the cost-of-living adjustments that graduate students are asking for. The pay increase that HR is offering is only an extra 60 dollars a month and doesn’t account for inflation. Meanwhile, the proposed pay increase on the Dearborn campus is only 20 dollars more a month. Neither are good enough. Cost of Living in Ann Arbor is roughly $38,000 a year, and graduate students are making only $24,000 a year: this is an over $10,000 deficit and is contributing to an unacceptable cost of living crisis in the United States. Furthermore, UM consistently ranks in the bottom 20 percent of peer institution’s graduate pay. Considering how much the university brings into the city ($200 million profit) this is an embarrassment for such a prestigious university. Ninety-five percent of GEO members have voted to strike.
International students have a harder time than regular students and the GEO is looking to change that. The GEO is proposing an emergency fund for international students who may experience surprising fees.
In recent news, the university administration has decided to withhold pay from striking students. During an action against University President Santa Ono several student protesters were briefly arrested. Ono was at a dinner party during the action. Furthermore, the most recent negotiations have shown little signs of improving, as the university refuses to hear pleas regarding trans healthcare, and dental coverage.
In a show of solidarity, university faculty pledged to withhold semester grades until May 12th if UM administration didn’t offer a suitable agreement with the GEO. Astoundingly, the administration responded by fabricating grades for students whose grades were withheld. There is broad support among the students at UM including the UM Student Government, and the Black Student Union. This represents a broad left-wing coalition within the University of Michigan and surrounding areas. Us Wobblies, members of the Democratic Socialists of America, various university faculty unions, GEO members from other universities, and old-time activists have been on the picket line. Several local activist organizations have thrown their support behind the strike, including Detroit Will Breath, who matched one thousand dollars in solidarity funds.
There is plenty of public support at the commencement picket. I see people cheering us on, fist bumping us, and clapping for us. I see people recording us, smiling, waving to us on our picket line. There are plenty of people cursing us too, including two washed-up old alumni who tell us “To get back to work.” There is resistance too among the various gaggles of frat boys, all drunk, and impotently trying to drown us out. I see one girl give us the finger as she walks past. It doesn’t matter. There isn’t anything they or the UM HR team can do to stop us.