Michigan sets grad example

by Kelly Hildebrandt

After threatening to go on strike if a contract wasn’t negotiated, the University of Michigan graduate assistants have reached a tentative agreement and will not strike.
The Graduate Employment Union, which only represents teaching assistants, reached a tentative agreement with the university on pay raises and graduate assistant appointment increases earlier this month, a few days before the threatened strike was scheduled to begin.
With the tentative agreement, teaching assistants will receive a minimum 4.5 percent pay increase next year, a 3.5 percent increase the second year and a 2.5 percent increase the third year of the contract, said Sandra Eyster, a University of Michigan union member. In the past, teaching assistants were only guaranteed a 2.5 percent increase.
Additionally, all 40 percent appointments were eliminated and 50 percent appointment hours were altered, Eyster said. An appointment is the number of hours a teaching assistant must work each week. TAs with a 40 percent appointment worked 17 to 19 hours each week.
Under the new contract, the 50 percent appointment was altered to a workload of 17 to 22 hours per week as opposed to 20 to 25 hours per week. University of Michigan officials made a verbal commitment not to increase the workload, although some students might end up working more if they choose, Eyster said.
At the University of Minnesota, the Graduate Students Organizing Congress is currently driving for a union election, which is expected to be in April or May. A graduate assistant union at the University would also represent research assistants.
“Michigan, in many ways, is a fantastic model of what a union can bring,” said Matt Basso, a GradSOC representative.
The University of Michigan has had a union since 1975. The first year of the contract, teaching assistants went on strike for one month and have walked out for seven days since then.
A strike can affect everyone, said Paul Enever, a member of Graduate Students Against Unionization.
“It hurts the whole academic environment,” Enever said, adding that such a hardball approach on both sides would not only affect graduate students but undergraduates as well.
At the University, a mediation period of 45 days would have to occur before a strike is possible. At that time, GradSOC members would have to vote on whether to strike.