University of Michigan Graduate Students Strike As Labor Dispute Heads to Court

The graduate student union wants higher wages, better healthcare benefits, and working conditions. The university says the strike violates Michigan law.
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  • The strike started March 29 after an authorization vote passed with 95% agreement after negotiations with the university administration failed in "bad faith."
  • The union began negotiations over a new contract with the university's human resources department last November.
  • The university disagrees with several union demands and filed an unfair labor practice charge and a lawsuit against the union to end the strike.

Graduate student employees at the University of Michigan (U-M) went on strike at the end of March, demanding better wages, healthcare benefits, and working environments. Now, the university is suing them in the latest labor dispute to rock higher education.

The graduate student union at U-M started their strike last Wednesday with a rally on the Diag, U-M's central open space, according to a press release. Ninety-five percent of union votes were in favor of the strike authorization.

"This action represents graduate workers' determination to fight for a U-M for all and a contract that is focused on equity, dignity and a living wage for graduate workers," Jared Eno, president of the graduate student union, said in the press release. "You shouldn't need family wealth to be a graduate student, we're fighting for a university where any worker can flourish — no matter if they're a parent, transgender, an international worker, or disabled."

The union began negotiations over a new contract with the university's human resources (HR) department last November. But even through extra bargaining sessions last week, negotiations didn't produce a tentative agreement.

According to the union, U-M failed to offer an adequate contract by the March 1 deadline. The current contract expires May 1.

"We would much rather resolve our disagreements with the University at the bargaining table, but HR made it clear they won't engage with us in a good-faith attempt to meet graduate workers' needs. At this point a strike is our only option left to get the University to take us seriously."

The union has filed several unfair labor practice charges against the university for negotiating in bad faith, according to the union's press release, but weekly negotiations will continue through the strike.

A few days before the strike, U-M President Santa J. Ono and Provost Laurie K. McCauley said the university has stayed committed to good faith negotiations and proposed an 11.5% raise over the contract's life.

"We are disappointed that the Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO) has decided to take this step," according to the statement from Ono and McCauley. "A strike would needlessly hurt undergraduate students and violate the union's own contractual commitment not to do so."

The Union's Key Demands:

  • Give a $14,500 minimum stipend raise that covers a full year's cost of living.
  • Defund policing and surveillance and invest in a community-based, non-police, unarmed emergency response plan.
  • Make clear and accessible accommodations available for grad students with disabilities.
  • Grant tuition waivers for all.
  • Create subsidized meal plans for grad students and a reimbursement system for bicycle-related costs.
  • Create a safer environment from discrimination and harassment and create transitional funding for harassment survivors.
  • Reduce out-of-pocket medical costs for all students and secure affordable healthcare for all 12 months — no more mental health copay.
  • Make secure and affordable childcare options available.
  • Preserve access to reproductive healthcare.
  • Offer accessible transgender healthcare.

Where the University and the Union Disagree:

  • The university disagrees with the union's demands for a 60% wage increase in the first year, with additional increases later.
  • The university believes the proposed non-police urgent response program is outside the union's contract scope and inappropriate for one bargaining unit to decide for the entire community.
  • The university is against giving graduate student instructors the authority to shift classes to remote for any health and safety reasons, citing that it would be "detrimental to the university's core identity as a residential institution and its commitment to ensuring continuity of education for our undergraduate students."

The president and provost said the university would hold classes as usual and take appropriate lawful action to continue its educational mission, including:

  • Asking for a court investigation to find a breach of contract and ordering strikers back to work
  • Stopping deduction of union dues
  • Filing unfair labor practice charges
  • Not paying striking graduate students for the time they do not work.

The university filed a complaint against the union, alleging breach of contract, in Washtenaw County Circuit Court on March 30 calling for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to prevent the strike and send graduate students back to work.

The university in the last week of March also filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, and began withholding participating graduate employees' pay.

"We sincerely hope that these issues are resolved through thoughtful and productive discussions at the bargaining table," the U-M president and provost wrote. "We remain confident that this is the best venue for achieving a fair and forward-looking contract agreement and ensuring the university and union members can do what they do best, by continuing to provide a world-class education."

Graduate Student Labor Strife Spreads

Michigan's flagship public research university is the latest institution of higher education to be rocked by labor disputes with graduate student employees and academic workers.

Some 48,000 University of California (UC) academic workers' went on strike last November, effectively shutting down most UC undergraduate classes and laboratory research through the end of 2022.

Those UC workers approved new contracts at the end of last December providing higher compensation, improved benefits, and worker protections; those contracts will remain in place until May 31, 2025.

Graduate student workers at Temple University in Philadelphia last January went on strike for better pay earlier this year, eventually winning a better contract and setting into motion a chain of events that forced the institution's president to resign last month.

Meanwhile, Duke University's graduate student workers at the beginning of March filed for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election to form a union. However, the North Carolina institution isn't just fighting the union, it's challenging the legal status of all graduate students across the country as workers.