Lessons from a Graduate Student Employees’ Union

Eric Dirnbach describes a successful contract fight at the University of Michigan in the 1990s.

In the late 1990s, I was a member of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), the union of 1,500 graduate student instructors (GSIs) and staff assistants at the University of Michigan. We were an American Federation of Teachers (AFT) local, but we had very little contact with AFT national. With the assistance of a staff organizer that we hired, we completely ran the union ourselves, including handling contract negotiations. Our autonomy was important to us and was largely possible because we were our own local (#3550), so we could elect our own leadership and control our own portion of members’ dues.

GEO dated from the 1970s. My participation in the union was bookended by two contract campaigns, in the 1995-96 and 1998-99 academic years, and I served in various leadership positions the entire time.

It’s been 20 years since I served as GEO president during the 1998 campaign, a time of intense stress and solidarity that changed my life. Here I’ll try to draw out some lessons that I learned on organizing during my time with the union.

Lesson 1: Ask Folks to Do Things and Develop Them Over Time

I joined the union because a colleague asked me. It was the fall of 1995 and I had just started working as a teaching assistant. My colleague told me that GEO was starting contract negotiations and asked if I wanted to be the steward for my Biophysics Department. I agreed and was trained up by GEO over the next few months, mostly learning through participation and working closely with the staff organizer. I ended up joining the bargaining team and steering committee (the top elected leadership group). Over the next few years I continued to serve on the stewards’ council (the group of all department stewards), steering committee, and in other roles.

Neither my colleague nor I knew at the time that his ask would be life-changing for me. My time with the union demonstrated to me the importance of collective action on the job and eventually influenced a change in my career, from physics to union organizing. So my first lesson is, always invite folks to join and be active members, and work to challenge them and develop their skills over time. If they decline, rather than give up on them, ask again later with more suggestions for how they can be involved. We should never assume that folks are inherently apathetic or disinterested. It’s the union’s job to find ways to engage everyone.

Lesson 2: Involve the Membership

I was elected president of GEO in the fall of 1998 to lead the union through the next contract campaign. The contract was set to expire in six months. The goal of our steering committee and stewards’ council was to organize the membership over this time to win the best contract possible.

We weren’t starting from scratch of course, in fact we prided ourselves on staying fairly well-organized all the time: we tried to maintain a strong stewards’ council, continuously signed up new members (who would otherwise be non-member, agency fee payers), and held union trainings and activities. But there was an inevitable ebb and flow of membership activity, as things died down between contract fights and over the summer when many members were away. So we had to ramp up fast.

That year began with a whirlwind of steering and stewards’ committee meetings, large membership meetings, social events, rallies, and many one-on-one conversations with members.

Our research showed that our members’ teaching work accounted for 50% of the undergraduate class hours taught at the university. This important work needed to be acknowledged and respected, and we wanted a living wage that would account for the cost of living in Ann Arbor. Our bargaining discussions with members generated 18 proposals to bring to the table.

We initially agreed to the administration’s request for closed bargaining sessions, meaning only the bargaining teams would be there. The university claimed these were more efficient and productive, but our understanding was that they hated having a lot of members watching the bargaining process, since their plan was basically to say “no” to most things. Our thinking was that we would initially concede to the closed sessions so that the administration would more quickly reveal their true positions (i.e. no), rather than hem and haw for months in front of our members. Dragging out negotiations is an effective tool of the administration, which drains our energy and wastes our time. We wanted maximum clarity on their bargaining stance as soon as possible so we would have time to mobilize a strong response before the summer when many members would be away. During that time, members held a number of sit-ins outside the bargaining room.

Predictably, negotiations became bogged down on some of our central bargaining demands, including our wage proposal. We then opened the bargaining sessions for all members to attend. They could then see the administration and hear for themselves that our good arguments at the table weren’t enough, and hopefully be radicalized to eventually take action. Dozens of members would attend some sessions and participate in our frequent caucus discussions (the photo above shows one example).

Lesson 3: Build Collective Confidence

We eventually held a strike authorization vote — what we called a “job action authorization ballot.” We saw this as an important internal organizing tool. It was a deliberate two-step process with a meeting vote, and then a membership-wide ballot over 10 days. This gave the members plenty of time to debate the issue. The steering committee argued for the need for a “Yes” vote and then the stewards organized for it and took the temperature of the membership along the way. If we had had strong pushback or a “No” vote, then we would have dropped it, but we expected to get a “Yes” vote, in part because GEO had done strikes before.

When we received a 75% yes vote, we continued the discussions about what a possible strike would look like. Every step of the campaign – membership meetings, rallies, sit-ins, bargaining sessions, strike vote, organizing discussions – was about building our collective confidence that we could take the next step and eventually win.

Lesson 4: Be Boldly Realistic, or Realistically Bold

The contract expired on Feb 1 and we were working under extensions throughout February. We held a membership meeting to decide which issues were the most important and that we would potentially strike over. The living wage issue remained critical.

We knew a strike might be needed, but there were risks since it was not protected activity under Michigan labor law, as we were public sector workers who weren’t allowed to strike. Would members be fired? Would leaders be fined or arrested? We didn’t think so, but we also weren’t sure. Our steering and stewards meetings leading up to the walkout were intense. We refused to agree to state mediation since in past years we felt the mediator had leaned on us to accept the administration’s last offer. In the end we decided on a two-day work stoppage in March, leaving plenty of time for the possibility of an extended strike later on. We needed to test ourselves to see if we could stop work for a few days. We needed to be bold but also realistic.

Lesson 5: The Contract is Settled at the Bargaining Table but Isn’t Won There

The two-day walkout was fairly successful, with hundreds of members on the picket line and many classes cancelled or moved off campus. Our outreach to professors and students was helpful as many of them supported the walkout. We also received good press coverage from the job action.

Several positive events came together later that week. We entered another round of intense bargaining with renewed energy from the walkout and a credible threat of an extended strike. We also secured solidarity commitments from the Teamsters and construction unions, whereby they would stop work if we did an extended strike.

Furthermore, there was a major public miscalculation by the administration negotiator when he held a press conference and wrongly declared that we had caused an official impasse in negotiations. This was intended to coerce us into mediation, a common tactic of theirs, but we denied we were at impasse, made it clear we were willing to continue talks, and their gambit failed. Moreover, we created enough of a crisis that the Provost, someone with real power, directly intervened in the negotiations and seemed inclined to want to settle this.

Later that week we reached a tentative agreement largely on our terms. A major achievement was the shift of 500 lower-paid members (one third of the bargaining unit) to a higher work assignment level, which came with a 25% wage increase but minimal increase in work.

Of course, we didn’t win everything we wanted. Some of our important demands were partial victories. For example, we wanted full contractual compensation for the mandatory, three week, pre-semester training for International graduate student instructors (GSIs — 25% of the unit), but we settled for partial compensation in a Memo of Understanding. We also wanted the University to strengthen their affirmative action efforts to increase the diversity of GSIs, but in the end we settled for continued discussions.

The membership ratified the contract and we were elated. This was our 11 th negotiated contract and was widely considered the best in GEO’s 25-year history.

But this entire bargaining process was really about demonstrating to ourselves that talks at the table weren’t enough and that escalating organizing was essential. Graduate students especially need this education process since they are socialized to engage in professional discussion and debate where the best ideas are supposed to win. These negotiations are about power relations and that is perhaps the best education our members received.

Lesson 6: The Struggle Makes the Union – Pick Fights and Win Them

Our contract campaign was an intense conflict with the administration that packed a lot of organizing into a short period of time. The process of working through this conflict – planning and organizing events and actions, articulating and defending our positions, assessing our progress, building our confidence over time, with constant one-on-one organizing discussions throughout – strengthened the union, improved the contract, and created successive generations of union organizers, activists and leaders.

I don’t know anyone at GEO anymore, but I see from their history timeline that they continued to develop a culture of democratic militancy, holding work stoppages multiple times since my days there, and winning more important fights such as childcare subsidies and trans-inclusive health benefits. But they have also faced challenges too tough to overcome so far, for example, in their unsuccessful campaign to include Research Assistants in the bargaining unit. And I see now a number of ways we could have done better, such as making more efforts to organize members more creatively around grievances that arose during the contract.

I’ve long thought about what factors contributed to GEO’s culture of organizing, with our constant efforts to engage members deeply in the democratic process of running the union. As mentioned above, being an autonomous local with our own leadership and control of our dues was important. Moreover, elected leadership positions were unpaid, short-term, and involved a lot of extra work beyond regular graduate student duties. Thus these positions tended to attract political leftists generally committed to some version of radical unionism. This structure also helped prevent the formation of any kind of permanent leadership disconnected from the rank and file. With a proud history of member participation, we were aware that we would succeed or fail based on our ability to bring members into the active life of the union. With engaged members, we either win together, or if we fail, we can accept that result knowing that at least we fought hard together and didn’t rely on a small number of leaders to try to win things for us.

Unions that hope to settle things quietly without a fight will be weak and have disengaged members. Unions must always identify winnable fights and then organize to win them. Everything GEO did was organizing and every contract campaign was really an organizing drive. Our union was created and sustained through this struggle.