GEO Fights for Affordability and Dignity; UMich Requests Mediation

Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO)
GEO Fights for Affordability and Dignity; UMich Requests Mediation

On November 17, 2022, negotiations between the University of Michigan and the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) kicked off with a bang. Over 400 graduate workers and community allies rallied and marched to the bargaining room, where they watched as GEO members put forth a platform centered around the two key goals of affordability and dignity for all grad workers.

At stake in these negotiations is the potential to make graduate education accessible to everyone, not just those with family wealth. As it stands, graduate workers at U of M make $24,050 per year—just 60% of the local cost of living. Soaring rents, ballooning grocery bills, and stagnant wages have left many workers with no option but to skip meals and sell their plasma to make ends meet. For graduate worker parents, the little that U of M offers in the way of childcare subsidies can leave them on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in daycare expenses—if they can even find a daycare with capacity for their kids. International grad students pay anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars per year in visa and other immigration fees necessary to stay employed at U of M. And expensive co-pays leave even basic, necessary care like filling cavities and therapy out of reach for many.

GEO members and allies march with signs and a megaphone on 11/17/22

Under the current system, the only real way to fill the gap between what we make and what we need to live is family wealth. This reality excludes the vast majority of people from graduate education, at what is supposed to be a public institution. The central aim of this campaign is to change that and make grad school work for people of all backgrounds. We’re fighting for a living wage for all workers, accessible and affordable trans healthcare, an unarmed non-police response program for our campus community, and programs to help graduate workers escape from harassment and abuse.

These proposals have been met with blanket resistance. If anything, the University seems to think that graduate workers are overpaid. According to them, grads work part time for just eight months out of the year, and receive a generous $35 per hour to assist in the process of teaching and research. If we were to work “full time,” we’d make over $70,000 annually—and that’s before tuition waivers. The problem, in their book, is not that we’re making poverty wages, but that we just don’t understand how good we have it.

“…[O]ur labor is enormously profitable… after accounting for our pay and benefits, [it] leaves U of M with a handsome $200 million annual surplus…”

The truth is that graduate work is a full-time job. When grad workers aren’t teaching or working on faculty research projects, we’re producing our own research. We serve on committees and bring in millions of dollars per year in grants and fellowships. Some graduate workers, particularly Masters of Social Work students, complete hundreds of hours of unpaid fieldwork as a requirement of their degree programs. The problem is not that we aren’t putting in the hours—it’s that the University does not see the vast majority of our work as worthy of pay.

And for that reason, our labor is enormously profitable. At U of M, graduate instructors account for over 28% of instructional staff, second only to tenure-track professors. The classes we teach generate $450 million in tuition revenue, which after accounting for our pay and benefits leaves U of M with a handsome $200 million annual surplus. Graduate researchers account for a similarly impressive share of the University’s cash flows: While U of M took in over $1.4 billion in sponsored research income last year, it paid out just 7% of this money in salaries to graduate RAs, whose work is essential to the projects these grants fund.

All of this is set before a backdrop of the University’s unimaginable wealth: a $17.3 billion endowment, triple-A bond ratings, and ever-rising tuition and enrollment. The cost of our bargaining platform would be a drop in the bucket for U of M, but thus far their representatives have refused nearly every proposal we’ve passed across the table. 

Graduate workers are fed up. We know what our work is worth, and how essential that work is to this University. We are tired of watching University representatives dismiss the very real problems we’ve raised as nonexistent or unimportant. And we understand that we can’t do the work we came here to do if we can’t afford to eat. Amidst the frustrations and setbacks, graduate workers are coming together in the bargaining room every Friday, finding joy in the chaos and developing bonds of solidarity. We understand that this fight won’t be easy, and that for as long as GEO has existed, the University has fought to keep our members precarious and disorganized. But graduate workers are determined to win, and we leave each week better prepared for the struggle to come.

The deadline for reaching a contract agreement with U of M is March 1st, 2023. GEO welcomes community allies to stay updated and involved in negotiations by signing up for our ally email list:

GEO members and allies march with signs on 11/17/22