Higher education, striking lesson

Last week, as Wayne State University graduate assistants continued negotiating for their first union contract, the University of Michigan graduate assistants who helped them organize staged an effective walkout, threatened to strike and won a tentative contract.

Is there a lesson in this for the Wayne grad students?

Days before a tentative agreement was reached with U-M administrators March 13, members of the university’s Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) staged a day-and-a-half walkout, picketing on campus and interrupting classes for undergraduates during midterm week.

U-M officials were able to end the strike by making salary concessions and agreeing to paid training for international graduate employees.

GEO spokesperson Stephen Arellano said in press release Monday that the agreement "represents a significant step for GEO members and provides a powerful precedent for graduate students everywhere who are trying to organize for recognition and social justice."

J.P. Faletta, interim president of the Graduate Employees Organizing Committee (GEOC) at Wayne, said the aggressive tactics on display in Ann Arbor could strengthen his group’s position.

"The university may not want to see something similar happen here in the future," Faletta said.

The GEOC at Wayne is the second group of graduate employees to unionize in Michigan. Both groups are affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

WSU’s vice president and general counsel, Louis Lessem, said Monday that although he wasn’t prepared to comment on the situation at U-M, "Wayne’s position will not be dictated in terms of what the GEOC does or does not do."

Wayne’s GEOC is trying to convince university officials to include all of its approximately 900 members in contract negotiations. So far, they say, WSU administrators have agreed to include approximately 200 graduate teaching assistants in the bargaining unit, excluding some other teaching assistants and all research assistants.

According to Lessem, the bargaining unit was defined by an agreement signed by the GEOC, the university and Michigan Employment Relations Commission in February 1998. The university, he said, has not taken a position as to whether it would be willing to change the agreement.

"The university has the GEOC’s concerns under review, and they will be dealt with through collective bargaining," Lessem said.

GEOC members and administrators are scheduled to resume meeting weekly after spring break.

"We are continuing to work through a very difficult process," he said.

Meanwhile, more than 300 members of U-M’s GEO voted overwhelmingly Sunday night to accept a tentative contract agreement signed by university and GEO negotiators Saturday. A GEO spokesperson said the agreement will be put to membership-wide vote, with ballots to be mailed out within two weeks to all of its more than 1,000 members.

The tentative agreement guarantees at least an 11 percent raise over three years for graduate employees, ensures compensation for international graduate employees during three weeks of mandatory training, and adjusts graduate employee classifications so that their wages more closely reflect the number of hours they work.

"The university is recognizing the importance of graduate employees and also recognizing the power of the union to negotiate for and represent graduate employees," said GEO secretary/treasurer Sandy Eyster.

Unlike its well-established counterpart in Ann Arbor— which at 24 years old is the second oldest such union in the country — the GEOC at Wayne is still a fledgling organization. Grad students at the Detroit university began organizing in 1996, when, according to GEOC, administrators announced plans to slash graduate assistant health benefits, which would have involved high co-pays for office visits and withdrawn support for spouses and children. That plan was later abandoned.

"Even after we won the health care issue, we realized that the only way to prevent that issue from coming up again was to actually have a collective bargaining agreement signed with the administration," said Faletta.

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