A Powerful Graduate Student Union


At the University of Michigan, the
graduate students have a strong union. Known officially
as Local 3550 of the American Federation of Teachers, the
21 year old Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) is the
second oldest graduate student union in the country. GEO
is the official bargaining unit for the Graduate Student
Instructors (GSIs) and Graduate Student Staff Assistants
(GSSAs). The GSIs make up the majority of the union, and
any graduate student who teaches falls into this
category. Over 40% of the undergraduate classroom hours
at the University of Michigan are taught by graduate
students. However, on April 8-9, 1996, most of those
classes were not taught. On those two cold, snowy days,
the members of GEO staged a two-day work stoppage.

Instead of teaching, nearly a thousand
GEO members, friends, and undergraduates walked the
picket lines set up around a dozen university buildings.
Many supportive faculty members canceled class, and the
campus was generally deserted, as undergraduates honored
the picket lines by staying home. The walkout was a
direct result of the breakdown in negotiations between
GEO and the University Administration that had been
ongoing since the previous October. GEO members had been
working on continuous two week contract extensions since
the previous one had expired on February 1. In April,
both sides agreed to enter mediation. This called for a
bold strategy on the part of the union. Three years
earlier, during the previous contract negotiations,
mediation resulted in a near total victory for the
Administration, as the state mediator sided with the
university and leaned on GEO to settle quickly. It was
clear that all the organizing and union-building were
almost meaningless against the combined power of the
University and the State of Michigan. Determined not to
repeat the mistake of entering mediation in a powerless
position, GEO members voted to hold the two day work
stoppage as a show of strength, on the two days before
mediation started.

GEO had originally brought 37 proposals
to the bargaining table in October. They ranged from
changes in the grievance procedure, to hiring procedure
clarification, to a new title (Teaching Assistant was the
old one). The Administration’s position from the
beginning of negotiations was essentially "no
change" to the contract. However, over the course of
many months of twice a week bargaining sessions, numerous
rallies, protests, and job actions, three key issues
remained unresolved: wages, International GSI training,
and Affirmative Action. It were these issues that went to

GEO members wanted a living wage.
According to the estimates of the University Office of
Financial Aid, GSIs on average earned 30% less than the
cost of living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. GEO proposed a
wage increase of 30% spread over three years. They argued
that anyone who provided the essential service of
teaching at the University should not have to seek
additional employment. The Administration returned a
counter-proposal that would link GSI salary increases
with those of faculty. GEO understood that this was a
dangerous and unacceptable proposal. The faculty often
received wage increases less than the rate of inflation.
Additionally, and more importantly, equating GSI raises
with those of another unit, which doesn’t even bargain
for them, would be to essentially surrender the union.
Once the wage proposal was written into the contract, it
would be difficult to remove, and GEO would remain
powerless on the issue of wages. Furthermore, this
proposal failed to address the living wage concerns of

Another crucial issue involved the
International Graduate Student Instructor (IGSI) three
week summer training. IGSIs were 25% of the bargaining
unit, thus this was a great direct concern for many. All
graduate students in the College of Literature, Science
and Art from non-English speaking countries were required
to attend this full time training, yet were not
compensated in any way. Additionally, according to
federal law, they were barred from seeking other
employment while students. The financial burden this
placed on IGSIs was great. GEO took the position that
during this period, IGSIs should be compensated with
prevailing GSI wages, health care and housing.
Additionally, since IGSIs at that point had no official
input into the substance of the training, GEO asked for
the creation of a joint UM-GEO committee that would
investigate problems with the training. The
Administration agreed to the joint committee but argued
against the training compensation from an unexpected
angle. They claimed that since IGSIs were in training at
that point, they were not real employees, and were
therefore not in the bargaining unit. Thus GEO could not
bargain for them, and the issue couldn’t even be
discussed. GEO strongly asserted that IGSIs were
employees during training, pointing in support, to the
documents that the University files with the government
claiming employee status upon arrival. Therefore, the
IGSIs were part of the bargaining unit, and entitled to
union representation. The week before mediation, the
Administration offered a $400 training fellowship, which
was not nearly enough compensation and didn’t settle the
employee question.

The third important issue to the union
was the lack of an Affirmative Action policy for GSIs. A
significant body of anecdotal evidence had accumulated
over the years, describing systematic discrimination in
the selection and hiring of GSIs of color and female
GSIs. This was brought to the attention of the University
many times, but nothing adequate was done. GEO decided to
handle this problem in the contract, and brought a
two-part proposal to the negotiations. They proposed a
joint UM-GEO Affirmative Action committee that would
research statistical discrimination patterns in
departments and suggest remedies. Additionally, they
proposed that a full-time paid staff position be created
to facilitate the committee work. The Administration
eventually agreed to the joint committee, but refused to
create a paid staff position. GEO understood that without
a serious commitment to the formation of a staff
position, this would be another case of a well-meaning
committee solving nothing.

It was with these issues on the table,
and a successful two-day work stoppage completed, that
the GEO Bargaining Team entered mediation with the
Administration and the state mediator on April 10. After
an all day closed session, they announced a tentative
agreement. There would be a guaranteed annual 2.5% salary
raise or the faculty raise, whichever was higher. This
agreement had a "sunset clause", which meant
that it would be removed from the contract at expiration
in three years. The Administration agreed to increase the
IGSI training fellowship to $700. However, this was to be
an "extra-contractual agreement", a non-binding
understanding between the parties. This signified the
non-employee status of the IGSIs in the eyes of the
Administration. The Affirmative Action staff position was
denied. The other previously settled issues remained the

It seemed in many ways a stunning
defeat for the union. The Bargaining Team claimed,
probably correctly, that this was the best agreement that
could be reached under the circumstances. They described
how once again, the state mediator (the same one as last
mediation) pressured them to give in. The team voted,
not-unanimously, to endorse the tentative agreement and
send it to the membership for a vote. After similar
argument and soul-searching, the GEO Steering Committee
also endorsed the new agreement.

The membership meeting that followed a
week later to discuss and vote on the proposed contract
was boisterous and contentious. Members took turns
stating their dismay over the lost issues, especially
wages. Also, it seemed clear that the Administration was
willing to create powerless committees, but would not
make further substantial commitments. Many were extremely
angry and upset that despite all the efforts of the past
months, including a two day shutdown, the University was
still able to ignore many of their important demands. It
was evident that GEO was dealing with more than the
University Administration. The University again had
allies in both the mediator and the Republican dominated
state of Michigan, and more work needed to be done to
change the situation there. However, despite troubled
feelings, the membership voted overwhelmingly to accept
the new contract.

Though far from perfect, the new
contract contained many substantial advances. For the
first time, joint committees had been created to address
problems in hiring discrimination and IGSI training. The
Affirmative Action staff liaison, while not created
officially, was a position that GEO could possibly fund
on its own. Additional joint committees working on
pedagogy and tuition assessment issues were initiated.
The IGSI fellowship, while not enough compensation, was a
substantial sum. There was the new GSI title, a name
chosen by the union to more accurately reflect the work
of the members. This replaced the old title that was
imposed on GEO by the University 20 years earlier. Other
contract improvements included new language stating that
the GSI hiring procedures for all departments had to be
developed and clearly posted, so that all graduate
students would know the hiring process. Additionally, all
GSI supervisors would now be sent a document outlining
the relevant parts of the contract of which they should
be aware. Most members felt that overall, the new
contract was much better than the last, and nearly
everyone was glad to put the negotiations behind them.
Additionally, in a recent era that has seen many new
attacks on immigrants and Affirmative Action programs,
GEO was proud to have fought for and won concessions in
these areas. It is important, however, to note that the
University has since attempted to renege on it’s
agreement to pay the IGSI fellowship to all training
participants. The non-contractual nature of the agreement
made this more difficult for GEO to fight.

This was the tenth contract that GEO
has negotiated with the University of Michigan. The union
has now turned its attention to enforcing the new
contract, increasing membership, and outreach to other
graduate student unions. There are over a dozen
officially recognized graduate student unions in the US.,
all of them at public universities. It is clear that this
non-traditional segment of the labor movement is growing.
More established unions such as the American Federation
of Teachers (AFT), and the Communication Workers of
America (CWA) have been working for many years on
organizing new GSI unions. Graduate students without
officially recognized unions at schools such as the
University of California system, and Yale, a private
university, have been organizing for some time and have
received much publicity.

Graduate Student Instructors do an
increasing percentage of the classroom teaching at large
universities. A majority still struggle to be recognized
as legitimate employees making a crucial contribution
toward the function of their institutions. Often the
wages and benefits are inadequate, and most must also pay
tuition while they are employed. In this environment,
GSIs at schools across the country understand the
importance of having the power to negotiate for the
conditions of their employment and they look to
unionization as the answer.


Eric Dirnbach is a graduate student in
the Biophysics Research Division at the University of
Michigan. He is serving currently as a GEO department Steward
and was a member of the GEO Bargaining and Steering
Committees during the last contract negotiations.