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Graduate Employees Organization gearing up to Strike Tuesday

24. March 2008 • Chuck Warpehoski
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The UM Graduate Employees Organization is planning for a work stoppage on campus this Tuesday and Wednesday, March 25 and 26.

The top issue is a living wage to meet the cost of attendance published by the university’s Office of Financial Aid, and health care is also on the table.

  1. This just in, there will be a support rally at the Diag at 12:30 today, Tuesday, at 12:30.

       —Chuck Warpehoski    Mar. 25 '08 - 05:47PM    #
  2. Appreciate the insight, Mr. Warpehoska!

    To the Striking Grads:

    Please consider the benefits of living without such large sums of monetary aid; so to give another a chance at peace and health, and for you to see just how clearly these benefits affect you and me.

    T. “Money”

       —tgapin    Mar. 26 '08 - 12:11AM    #
  3. Our grads decided it was too cold outside, so they just drew a chalk line outside the building entrances and went home.

       —KEF    Mar. 26 '08 - 01:44AM    #
  4. I find myself stuck on this quote from the News regarding the union’s requests:

    One of the disputes is over the size of a salary raise in the first year of the contract. The union wants a 9 percent raise. U-M has offered a 3 percent raise, plus a $300 “competitiveness adjustment” to the base salaries of the typical graduate student instructor, according to an update on the negotiations posted on the U-M Web site on Monday. Both sides appear to have settled on raises of 3 percent a year in the last two years of the contract.

    The union also is seeking summer stipend pay for its members when classes are out, but the university says that amounts to paying graduate student instructors when they are not working.

    I guess I have to ask, how many hours/week would most GSIs and GSSAs need to put in to be able to teach their courseload? Again, from the UM web site: The typical GSI at U-M has a 50% appointment, working between 16.5 and 20 hours per week during the eight-month academic year and earning a salary, health and dental benefits for themselves and their dependents, and a full tuition grant. The median half-time GSI salary for eight months in 2007-08 is $15,199. That equals at least $21.92 per hour and is the equivalent of a full-time annual salary of $45,597. In addition, the tuition grant ranges from $8950 to over $41,700, depending upon the enrollment status of the student and his or her area of study.

    So given this information, that doesn’t seem like a bad deal. The idea of a 9% raise is pretty staggering. Even the 3% raise sounds pretty good to a lot of us. The Mental Health benefit the U is offering is also the same as they offer for the rest of the UM community. I would like to hear why the GEO is objecting to what the U has offered.

    It looks like the negotiation numbers may be changing quickly since the UM site has different numbers than the News reported. I don’t like to get information from just the one side, but the GEO site doesn’t seem to have much about the current status of the negotiations and I’m having a hard time finding the information from them.

       —Juliew    Mar. 26 '08 - 03:33AM    #
  5. I admit to an automatic bias towards the labor side of the equation. BUt I don’t know GEO’s position, so I’m not saying they’re right – I just think the U is being disingenuous:

    the equivalent of a full-time annual salary of $45,597.

    Irrelevant. It’s not as if GSIs are expected to string together a number of these jobs to pull down a full-time annual salary. In fact, the U certainly doesn’t want them to, as it would slow down their progress towards graduation if they were working full-time. The point of the stipend is to provide enough money to live on at a modest level. So the question is not, “What does this come out to at a yearly rate?” but, “Is this enough to provide a reasonable level of living?”

    the tuition grant ranges from $8950 to over $41,700

    Sure, but tuition grants are imaginary numbers. How many PhD students pay for their own tuition? With a social circle packed with PhD students for the last 9 years, my experience has been “almost none”. You don’t go to a school to get a PhD if you’re going to have to pay tuition – in some fashion, you’re going to get that covered by grants, fellowships, assistantships, or other funding. So, essentially, the tuition waiver is worth something like $0, because that would have been a part of the student’s decision to attend this school rather than another – they had to have gotten a tuition waiver/grant through some source to be here.

    The Mental Health benefit the U is offering is also the same as they offer for the rest of the UM community.

    It’s important to clarify, though, that the medical/dental benefit offered to GSIs is pretty pathetic. I suppose I’ve never been on “real” staff at the U, but considering how many UMich staff cite the benefits as a reason for working there, I gather that they’re a little more useful than what GSIs get. (Maybe mental health benefit parity is cheap for the U to offer?)

    I do find the GEO’s “competitiveness” argument somewhat persuasive in their “press release“ . Grad students are “working” for the University by doing their research, even if the U’s profit from it is less well-defined and longer range than the profit from grinding through undergrads. The U is competing against other institutions to attract good grad students, and the level of funding doesn’t hurt. (OTOH, as long as I’m bashing disingenuous arguments, I’ll note that GEO compares GSI stipends here to those at Harvard, Princeton, and Northwestern, all campuses in areas with significantly higher costs of living. But then there’s Rutgers…)

       —Murph    Mar. 26 '08 - 04:04AM    #
  6. How’s the med coverage pathetic Murph? Does it beat nothing? Does it beat paying $220 a paycheck (funny that number sounds familiar to me. Oh it’s what I pay)?

    The tuition is an imaginary number? Hmm then let’s say it’s one million dollars (insert Dr. Evil voice here). You’re absolutely nuts to say “the tuition waiver is worth something like $0”. Key words buddy – “other funding” ie loans and working outside the fairy tale land which is the U.

    9% raise? Man I’d love me some of that, especially after taking a pay cut in my high tech job working for a company that made a profit.

    Murph I generally love every little thing you type here and abroad but you gotta step back and look at this from the outside buddy. There’s a few hundred thousand people in this state working for less and some how getting by, or what’s worse, not getting by. I got NO sympathy whatsofreakingever for the GSIs. Do your time, punch your card, STFU kids and get back to the salt mines you ungrateful wretches.

       —Thomas Cook    Mar. 26 '08 - 04:34AM    #
  7. “The median half-time GSI salary for eight months in 2007-08 is $15,199. That equals at least $21.92 per hour and is the equivalent of a full-time annual salary of $45,597.”

    I think this computation of the ‘full-time’ equivalent is, to coin a phrase, an academic exercise.

    As a practical matter, to qualify for the half-time appointment, I thought a GSI needed to be enrolled full-time in a degree program making adequate progress towards a degree. Such enrollment would be at odds with employment in any other capacity with similar compensation.

    It’s not realistic, for example, for a GSI with a half-time appointment also to serve on the Ann Arbor City Council, which I’ve heard some CM’s characterize as requiring around 20 hours a week (at least), and is compensated at around $15K a year.

    So I don’t necessarily see the computation of a theoretical full-time equivalent as relevant.

    The way I think about this issue is that there’s a compact between a University and an admitted graduate student to the effect that in exchange for the student’s contribution to the University through their student-hood (whatever that might entail—research, collegiality, etc.) the University provides some mechanism for the student to subsist. Sometimes that mechanism is pretty trivial—yeah, as a part of your loan application we’ll attest that you’re admitted/enrolled here. But if the mechanism offered is a GSI appointment, then that appointment needs to provide at least subsistence level support.

    Thus it makes sense that the GEO tied its salary requests to the subsistence standard that the U’s own Financial Aid office computed.

    If a 20% increase were (hypothetically) required to bring GSI salaries up to this standard, then I think that would still be reasonable, even though the 20% might be alarming on its face—just as 9% or even 3% might be.

    I have to say, my hat’s off to the GEO for putting their picket line right where it counted, in front of the UM Stadium reconstruction. Construction workers honored the picket line, putting even more pressure on the construction timelines the U. talks about in justifying its hourly construction schedule (which is at odds with A2 noise ordinances, though approved by the Regents).

    Of course that could eventually mean that the Board of Regents authorizes round the clock construction, at which point, people who live really close to the Big House would have the GEO partly to blame.

       —HD    Mar. 26 '08 - 04:41AM    #
  8. I’m not against the union’s argument (having once been a member), but there is a reasonable counterargument.

    A stereotypical college student goes to school full time. At the end of their degree program, they have a degree. Unless they work a job on the side or have money from savings/parents, they also leave with debt for tuition, room & board, books, and other expenses. The same holds true (at least as a baseline) for a graduate student (particularly students aiming only for a master’s degree).

    A 50% appointment as an RA or TA is a part-time job that is completely voluntary. (If you don’t take it, you fall into the category of stereotypical student, outlined above.) It pays for 20 hours of work plus gives you free tuition and benefits. The hourly salary is reasonable, as calculated in a previous post. If you add in the value of the free tuition, it works out to be a very reasonable compensation for a new college graduate (which many graduate students are). The fact that you also have to work on your classes/thesis the other 24 hours of the day is simply part of the onerous demands of graduate school.

    From a practical point of view, there’s a big difference between a 50% TA or RA that has nothing to do with your thesis and a 50% RA that allows you to work full time on your thesis. The latter (which I had) is available to some engineering students and makes it possible to complete your thesis much more rapidly.

       —Eric    Mar. 26 '08 - 05:23AM    #
  9. Its a funny thing about unions. I once asked a striking union leader aquaintance of mine what it was that the union wanted…REALLY wanted. His answer: “more”.

       —imjustsayin    Mar. 26 '08 - 06:04AM    #
  10. I’m probably missing something, but isn’t it illegal for teachers to strike in MI? Or are they not classified as “teachers”? I just remember the DPS strike of 2 years ago (current contract expires in 2009…joy) and everyone went ballistic over how much money we supposedly make and how it was illegal and on and on.
    Can you be a “full time” instructor, and therefore make $30,000+ per year? That is comparable with first year K-12 teachers at smaller districts (and is about what I made when I practiced legal aid law, working 12 months per year, 40+ hours per week. Sorry. I just like to fuss about that when I see the chance :)) Or maybe that is too much along with getting your degree?

       —TeacherPatti    Mar. 26 '08 - 06:45AM    #
  11. Tentative Agreement

    so no walkout today.

       —HD    Mar. 26 '08 - 03:45PM    #
  12. First of all, the strike is settled. From the Daily:

    One of the key parts of the tentative deal is a salary increase of 6.2 percent in the first year of the new contract for GSIs followed by increases of 3.5 percent in the second and third years of the contract.


    The tentative contract allows for any GSI to get health care, regardless of the number of hours they’re appointed for.


    Also, all GSIs who work for 7.5 hours or more each week will receive a full tuition waiver.

    Those are indeed “more”, significantly more than I thought possible. GEO’s militancy and its solidarity has forced the U to reorder its priorities. Good for them.

    On comments above:

    (Almost?) No GSI works full-time, though 0.75 appointments are sometimes given. The full-time equivalent, like the hourly rate, is a handy yardstick of comparison. The actual stipend is listed first.

    How to figure the value of that stipend is hopelessly muddled. The U uses GSI positions not only to cover needed teaching duties but also to attract good grad students and train future academics. On a pure work equation, the U is overpaying (because you could hire already-degreed lecturers for less). GSIs have to be students as well, but they get a degree for that “extra” work. GSIs can subsist on the stipend alone, but the level of living is a recruitment issue more than anything else.

    Lastly, the tuition benefit is huge, often that is make or break in the decision to pursue/continue a graduate degree. Many (Masters & professional school) students pay it themselves. Even when a grant or fellowship pays the tuition, that is outside money and helps offset the cost of providing graduate instruction. When the U gives this benefit to its GSIs, it must divert other monies to cover the lost revenue.

       —mcammer    Mar. 26 '08 - 03:50PM    #
  13. Replying to Murph’s comments on the health care stuff: according to the UM benefits page (publicly accessible), the mental health care that the GSIs got (limited visits) was comparable to that in all the faculty plans but one (that one covers more visits [50 rather than 25 visits/year] but with a much higher co-pay). GEO was initially asking for unlimited coverage, which doesn’t exist in any plan in America, I suspect, and then for 52 visits/year. So the issue is definitely not that there was a disparity, nor is it that GSIs didn’t have mental health benefits parity—no one seems to have very good benefits on that and I truly wonder how it is that GEO thought that UM could find an insurer who would offer an unlimited, open-ended plan just for them, given how stingy insurers are on mental health stuff in general.

       —Aki    Mar. 26 '08 - 04:20PM    #
  14. Why is it that a professor gets a six digit salary and is considered full time for putting in the same number of teaching hours as a grad student who is compensated for a “part-time” job? This “part-time” job for a doctoral candidate in the sciences is often 70+ hours per week.

       —Karen Luck    Mar. 26 '08 - 04:57PM    #
  15. Neither the prof, nor the grad student teaches full time. At the U, the customary formulation is that 40% of a prof’s effort goes to teaching, 40% to research or other scholarly work, and 20% to service (committee meetings, etc.). Of the 40% teaching number, some will be “stand up” teaching in the classroom, and some will be mentoring grad students in the lab, proofing their writing and so on. In the classroom, it is the prof who decides what will be covered, what the GSIs will do, and often teaches it to them before they teach it to students. In big classes, a prof my supervise dozens of GSIs as part of the teaching load. The prof’s greater knowledge, experience and responsibility are being compensated.

    No grad student teaches 70 hours—that extra work is what gets them a degree. Take away the GSI position and they’d still be working hard.

       —mcammer    Mar. 26 '08 - 05:50PM    #
  16. In the sciences, some grad students are given positions as TA’s, but many more are given positions as RA’s (Research Assistants). It can take as many as 4-7 years of lab benchwork in order to generate enough data and publications to satisfy the requirements of their mentor and/or thesis committee. Often, these graduate students are at the mercy of their mentors, who are in a position to destroy their future career. They are often coerced into fabricating results of experiments to confirm previously published results of their mentors. If they succeed in obtaining their PhD, this process is repeated through several positions as a “post doc”. At the end of this “training” approximately 5% of the PhD’s obtain tenure track positions as University professors. Just like survivors of hazing, the new professors replicate their experiences with the graduate students they will “mentor”. The pressure to publish is extreme. If a professor loses their grant funding, their lab space and equipment is taken by others in their department within hours. While some are lucky enough to find a good mentor and avoid these practices, it is a far too common scenario. Would you consider working with these pressures until your late twenties, early thirties for $15 – $20K a year, with only a 5 – 10% chance of reaching your goal? And no, I don’t think the issue is money, but I certainly support the efforts of those caught up in this system to unionize and improve their lot.

       —Karen Luck    Mar. 26 '08 - 07:00PM    #
  17. What this work stoppage has illustrated to me, above all, is the durability and flexibility of anti-union arguments. Ironically, quite a few start with, “I support the labor movement, but [insert gripe about demands]” and “I’d support an auto workers’ strike, but [insert gripe about nature of work]” as well as the tried-and-true “I don’t support the union, because the cost of [insert product or service] is so high” which are pretty much the exact criticisms I heard most frequently during the UAW strike.

       —Dale    Mar. 26 '08 - 07:01PM    #
  18. Karen, you greatly exaggerate the plight of science graduate students. Also, GEO has little power and even less inclination to change the academic-industrial complex. Near-term money and workplace issues they do quite well on.

       —mcammer    Mar. 26 '08 - 08:04PM    #
  19. I think this is exaggeration too, but it lends weight to some of the points Karen was making.

       —mcammer    Apr. 8 '08 - 12:42AM    #