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February 07, 2002 - Image 5

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The Michigan Daily, 2002-02-07

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OP/ED

5A - The Michigan Daily - Thursday, February 7, 2002

PART 1: CLASS STRUGGLE
he Graduate Employees Organization, local 3550, is the
union that represents all GSIs and GSAs at the University.
This is the first of a series that will attempt to demystify+-
and emphasize the importance - of the Graduate Emploees
Organization. Part 1 will establish the historical context - withan
editorial slant - of unionized University student-workers. GEO
and the University are currently in the process of contract renego-
tiations. GEOs contract with University was slated to expire an
Feb 1, after what would be the 12th contract should have been
negotiated. However, negotiations between GEO and the Univer-
sity have not been going well. The contract has been extended for
two weeks - to buy time. Now negotations have come ...
D'

GEO HISTORY-IN-BRIEF

.

m PART
o a l3orand thetivefan editi ei f the itiA ntxtofGE a 35 ame Uii
GEO Local 3550 and the University of Michigan: A student's primer

n the winter of 1975, life at the Univer-
sity was forever altered when the Grad-
uate Employees Organization took the
historic action of striking. After eight
months of relatively fruitless negotiations
with the University concerning the group's
first contract, the union's membership
voted 689 to 193 in support of a strike and
for the next month Ann Arbor was inun-
dated with picket lines, disrupted classes,
arrests and posturing on both sides. The
strike was finally ended when the adminis-
tration and GEO settled upon a contract
and the administration agreed that there
would be no academic reprieves for those
ho.supported the strike. GEG leadership
rejoiced in the news, proclaiming "this is

only the beginning."
Over the past 30 years GEO has con-
stantly fought for the recognition of unique
role of graduate students play at the Uni-
versity. As both employees of the Univer-
sity and students their importance is often
overlooked. The first attempts to organize
a union were in 1970 in response to the
decision of several departments to reduce
funding allocation to Teaching Fellows -
as GSIs were then called. Since the early
days graduate student unions have continu-
ously been confronted with obstacles, from
an unreceptive student body to an adminis-
tration unwilling to fairly negotiate.
The first effort at unionization was
unsuccessful when the Michigan Employ-

mont Relations Committee refused to
acknowledge the union. MERC ruled that
Teaching Fellows in themselves could not
be considered an acceptable body for collec-
tive bargaining but if Staff Assistants and
Research Assistants were included the orga-
nization could hold a recognition election.
Faced with the likelihood of an extended
legal process the budding movement faded.
However, when, the University
announced a 24 percent increase in tuition
coupled with no increases in TF salaries
efforts to unionize were given a new impe-
tus. The Organization of Teaching Fellows
was created; the OTF's proposals included'
an end to discriminatory hiring practices at
the University, full tuition waivers and
official recognition of the group. Eventual-'
ly OTF expanded to incorporate RAs and
SAs in its membership and changed its
name to GEO. In 1974 GEO began the
arduous process of negotiating its first
contract with the University.
Over the next eight months the Univer-
sity refused to negotiate in good faith,
arguing that graduate students were not
employees despite the fact that they
received compensation in return for their
labor. In early 1975 GEO offered to enter
into binding mediation with the University,
a request that was denied outright. GEO
proposals would have benefited the educa-
tion of all University students, such as cap-
ping class size at 25 students in most
classes and at 20 in classes where discus-
sion was essential.
After the strike concluded and the
antagonistic nature of the relationship
between GEO and the administration was
soothed, the effort to create a second con-
tract began in 1976. The administration
quickly demanded that GEO not pursue
two grievances from the previous contract.
In response, GEO filed an unfair labor
practice complaint with MERC. The
administration responded by arguing that
GEO did not represent employees. After an

extended series of trials, in 1980 a judge
ruled that GEO did represent employees
and the organization thus had collective
bargaining power.
Throughout the 1980s GEO continued
to staunchly advocate proposals that
improved the academic and educational
experience of the University.
Mandatory training for graduate
instructors and the official recognition of
affirmative action in hiring practices were
both fruitful developments for GEO and
the University as a whole. Despite the
obstacle of often dealing with a hostile
administration GEO was able to secure
necessary wage and benefit increases.
However, in both 1996 and 1999 GEO
was forced to resort to walk-outs as des-
perate measures to capture the attention of
the University community and to illustrate
their vital role at the University. The Uni-
versity cannot be willing to sacrifice the
quality of a significant part of undergradu-
ates' education over the perfectly reason-
able demands that GEO has set forth.
The University issued a report on the
undergraduate experience last semester.
One of the most important part of the
undergraduate experience is student-
teacher interaction. GSIs teach mnore than
fifty percent of contact hours at the Uni-
versity. They cannot be overlooked.
With the current GEO contract set to
expire on the Feb. 15, it is imperative that
the University finally recognize that the
interests of GEO and the University are
not mutually exclusive. If the University
desires to continue its reputation of being
at the forefront of academia it must be
willing to increase compensation and bene-
fits to attract the most dynamic and talent-
ed graduate students. The mass
unionization of GSIs across the country
has proven to be an indicator of the value
that graduate students bring to the educa-
tional process - and of the value that uni-
versities should place in them.

FILE PHOTO
After contract negotiations failed in 1996, members of the Graduate Employees Organization, the
graduate student instructors' union, went on strike to protest.

Grad students and unions: A thriving national tradition

It was a busy year for progressive
activists in the United States. In 1966,
the Vietnam War was heating up and
the opposition was growing, Huey New-
ton's Black Panther Party was taking up
arms in the streets of California's East Bay
in a battle against a racist society and a lit-
tle organization known as the Teaching
Assistants Association gave birth to the
graduate student employee organizing
movement.
The group started out as an advocate for
improvements in the working conditions of
graduate student employees as well as
undergraduate education at the University
of Wisconsin-Madison, but when the state
legislator proposed a bill to deny out-of-
state student employees tuition waivers in
1969, the membership numbers swelled and
the organization decided take direct action.
The TAA threatened to strike if the bill
was passed and as a result the bill was
quickly withdrawn. The employees recog-
nized the TAAs potential power and decid-
AM 1 ... . A - - -1 4- N tl lM D

unions, primarily on state university cam-
puses in affiliation with the American Fed-
eration of Teachers (AFT) and the United
Auto Workers (UAW). Several other orga-
nizing drives including four other Big Ten
schools and several Ivy League schools.
Because state universities are more
tightly governed by state labor regulation,
it has been easier for organizers to create
recognized unions at state schools.
Now, graduate employee organizers are
now hoping to spread the movement into
private schools. For most of the move-
ment's history there had been a tightly
sealed barricade around the nation's private
universities which created a precedent for
these schools to effectively say, "Teaching
assistants are not employees; they are stu-
dents."
The wall that separated graduate
employees at private schools was torn
down on March 1, 2001 at New York Uni-
versity.
A campaign tha,t from the employees'

graduate students everywhere are going to
organize."
And she was right. Less than a month
after the victory at NYU on a campus only
a subway-ride away, Columbia graduate
employees filed a petition with the National
Labor Relations Board. Beverly Gage, a
Columbia history-teaching assistant, said at
the filing of the petition, "Grad employees
at public universities have made major
improvements through unionization; now
it's time for the Ivy League to catch up."
As of now, the campaigns continue.
Organizers seek - as they shoud - to
unionize every last campus in the nation
and existing unionized graduate employees
are currently reaching out to the non-union-
ized workers at their schools.
The most recent victory to date was at
the University of Massachusetts-Amherst,
when on Friday, Jan. 18, the Massachusetts
Labor Relations Commission ruled that
Resident Advisors are, in fact, workers that
can legally be represented by a union. This

DOWN TO THE WIRE
is a series-analysis of the Grad-
uate Employees Organization
This, the first part, examined
the historical context of GEO
and the unionization of student-
wnlpr t vn1-ot-cand fliv7V-

Fledgling GEO made the cover of The Michigan
Daily from March 12, 1975 after their month
long strike ended and contract settlement was

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