Michigan graduate students strike for living wage

Graduate Employees Organization Local 3550 (GEO) are entering their tenth week on strike at the University of Michigan, marking the longest strike in the union’s history. At the bargaining table, UM has continued to offer the same insufficient proposals that led workers to strike in the first place. 

Workers have been supported by numerous open letters and statements issued by students and faculty, local unions such as Lecturer Employees Organization (LEO) at UM and Detroit Federation of Teachers, and construction workers who walked off UM construction sites in solidarity with the striking workers during a picket.

‘Santa Ono takes a million while GSIs can’t make a living!’

Representing nearly 2,300 workers, GEO began their strike on March 29, as a response to UM repeatedly failing to negotiate in good faith when collective bargaining began back in November 2022. Workers presented UM with their demands and have been met with virtually no compromise by the university, as UM demands significant concessions from workers under a threat of escalating legal action against GEO. 

As the cost of living in Ann Arbor has skyrocketed in recent years, workers demanded a living wage that would ensure 80% of workers were no longer deemed rent-burdened. Expansion of health care benefits, including the elimination of mental health copays and a provision of medical benefits to all workers, is another central demand from the workers, who report over 50% of graduate students delay or entirely forego health care because of soaring costs. Additionally, workers are asking for increases to the child care subsidy, the elimination of exclusions to the subsidy, and 12 weeks of parental leave for graduate student workers, because parents are forced to pay half their salary on top of the subsidy for child care, and they aren’t provided parental leave like all other UM employees.

All of these demands are realizable based on the university’s current funding. UM’s annual endowment in 2022 surpassed $17 billion — the fourth highest endowment for a public university in the United States. UM’s endowment is higher than those of private universities such as University of Notre Dame ($16.73 billion) and Columbia University ($13.28 billion). President Santa Ono was appointed the 15th president of UM in January 2022 and makes a base salary of $975,000 — over twice the salary of the $400,000 annual salary of the President of the United States and a higher salary than his predecessor who had a base salary of $927,000. This highlights the gross inequality between the bloated salaries of university administrators and GEO workers, who reported in a recent membership survey that 60% of them feel unprepared to meet long-term financial goals.

‘Instead of paying what we’re due, U of M chose to sue!

While the Michigan Public Employment Relations Act prohibits public employees such as GEO workers from striking and their own contract contains a clause prohibiting a strike, the state’s highest court has limited the circumstances in which this prohibition can be enforced. Decided in 1968, the Michigan Supreme Court in School District for the City of Holland v. Holland Education Association held that it is “insufficient merely to show that … prohibited action by public employees has taken place and that ipso facto such a showing justifies injunctive relief. We hold so because it is basically contrary to public policy in this State to issue injunctions in labor disputes absent a showing of violence, irreparable injury, or breach of the peace.”

Following their last strike in 2020 that ended after the university began negotiating, but only after filing a similar request for an injunction, GEO was prepared for the worst when UM filed two lawsuits in state court against GEO in response to the strike. Workers and supporters filled the courthouse during the April 10 evidentiary hearing where it would be decided whether GEO was causing UM “irreparable harm” by going on strike, and hundreds picketed outside between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. 

‘Without us, you cannot function — we defeated your injunction!’

Following the circuit court’s denial of an injunction, GEO and their community supporters continue to hold numerous pickets and protests throughout UM and Ann Arbor. Despite the repressive laws on the books, the recent victory in court and groundswell of community support showcases the power of the workers when they’re organized. Other public employees in Michigan and other states with similar laws are taking note of this lesson. “At Rutgers University, workers launched a strike and RU originally planned to file a request for an injunction against those workers. They chose not to and this is directly because of what happened in Michigan. We hope that public sector employees can also realize their power and organize,” Zhang said. “This shows that by organizing and using our collective power, we can defy these unjust laws. That’s the message we want to deliver.”

If you would like to donate to the GEO Strike Fund, you can find it here.

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