Working for Racial Equity Is Work, Say Michigan Graduate Workers in Contract Fight

Rachel Miller and Robert Ramaswamy

GEO is one of the nation’s oldest graduate student unions, but in this year’s contract negotiations, it is asking for something new: dedicated positions and fair compensation for “diversity workers.” (Photo credit: Sam Shuman)

Several weeks ago, as a March blizzard descended on Ann Arbor, we were two of some 150 graduate student workers at the University of Michigan who rallied together to walk their bargaining team to its fifth month of contract campaign negotiations. Their spirits lifted by chants and signs, the volunteer negotiators continued to argue a platform generated by the members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), Local 3550 of the American Federation of Teachers, which is the union that represents graduate student instructors and staff assistants at the University of Michigan (UM). GEO is one of the nation’s oldest graduate student unions, but in this year’s contract negotiations, we are asking for something new: dedicated positions and fair compensation for diversity workers” that will bring structural change to the university.

If the phrase graduate student union” makes you think of melodramatic sob stories from a bunch of whiny kids, we ask that you reconsider what you think you know about graduate students. Many of us began our current programs several years after receiving college degrees, often taking a significant pay cut as we transitioned back to school from careers in the workforce. We are not only 22-year-old students with no real world experience,” but professionals in our 30s and beyond. We are parents and spouses, teachers and colleagues.

According to the most recent NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates, more than 55 percent of Ph.D. recipients are over 31 when they receive their degrees; this number is significantly higher for African American (63 percent), Hispanic (63 percent) and American Indian (83 percent) degree-holders, and for those with degrees in the humanities and the arts (71 percent), social sciences (63 percent) and education (73 percent). Too many of us are saddled with student debt that we may never be able to repay: In 2015, more than 17 percent of Ph.D. recipients in the social sciences and psychology had at least $90,000 in debt. Too often we are compelled to stay on the clock into our evenings and through our weekends, filling our brief moments between coursework, research, and teaching with volunteer work, advising and part-time jobs. On the one hand, we get paid to read”—just what we love”—but on the other hand, our salaries here at UM are almost 20 percent below the living wage in Ann Arbor. We who provide 23 percent of student contact hours at UM are compensated with less than1 percent of the university’s budget.

And given the prospects on the academic job market, we’re not looking forward to a bright light at the end of the tunnel. As Emory University professor Marc Bousquet has put it, For many graduate employees, the receipt of the Ph.D. signifies the end — and not the beginning — of a long teaching career.” Today’s universities increasingly favor precarious and contingent teachers (read: graduate students and adjunct faculty) over tenured professors. Over half of all faculty appointments in the United States are part-time and non-tenure-track.

These are the reasons we are fighting for a contract that centers around equity and access. This principle is at the heart of our platform proposals, whether they are articulated as cost of living raises, protections for international student workers, affordable healthcare, or improved bereavement and parental leave for student workers and their families. We have also proposed creating a team of paid graduate student staff assistant positions that will implement UM’s recently launched Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” plan. Despite hazy rhetoric that asks us all to pitch in equally, diversity work” tends to fall on the shoulders of those it is meant to support. We believe that the only way to make sure that diversity work does not replicate systems of inequality is to compensate it on par with research, teaching and other services.

Accordingly, we see our contract campaign at the center of a coalitional politics connecting campus and community activists. Southeast Michigan has a remarkable history of both revolutionary labor and student movements, and this history has taught us that student worker” is neither a contradiction nor an accident but a powerful legacy. We build power and share tactics with allies in higher education unions and the Huron Valley Area Labor Federation, as well as campus groups focused on racial justice like the Multicultural Leadership Council and Students4Justice at UM.

Our paid diversity labor proposal was developed by student workers across campus with first-hand experience in UM’s diversity initiatives. A petition in favor of this proposal was signed by more than 1,000 individuals and at least 40 campus groups organized by graduate, undergraduate and professional students across disciplinary, social identity and advocacy lines. We understand this support as a mandate to continue the fight for a just and equitable university for all students and workers, even after the contract is ratified. In establishing a precedent for paid diversity work, we aim to make unavoidably clear the central significance of student labor, and to leverage the particular power of the second term in student worker.” This requires dedicated resources — such as salaries, healthcare, and real estate — not simply advisory committees and small stipends that will not fundamentally alter how the university functions.

At the moment, 77 percent of the eligible 1,773 employed graduate students have opted for membership in GEO, and together have voted on, researched, and written contract language that will make UM a more just and equitable workplace. This is an incredible show of solidarity at a critical moment because in the fall we become subject to right to work” legislation, which allows graduate student workers to receive the benefits of union protection without paying.

Academic success advice is to keep your head down and do your work; fighting for a graduate workers’ union is lifting your head up. Our contract campaign emphasizes fair remuneration not only for the recognized work” of the academy — teaching — but for the second shift” of emotional labor and care work that initiatives like the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” plan demand. This calls for an intersectional labor politics that understands how race, gender and citizenship status are inextricable from capitalist exploitation. In a moment when too many would-be labor advocates parrot a narrative of decline and disarray, we see rising strength and innovation in our union and others like it. 

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Rachel Miller and Robert Ramaswamy are rank-and-file members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), Local 3550 of the American Federation of Teachers.
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