GEO protests in response to unsuccessful contract negotiations


Lisa Chasanov

Graduate Employees Organization pose with their posters as they protest in front of the Levis Faculty Center.

By Lisa Chasanov, Contributing Writer

On Thursday morning, the Graduate Employees Organization, along with other workers’ unions, protested a lack of progress in their contract negotiations with the University. 

GEO organizers chanted “Denying access, that is wrong, unions make our campus strong!” before filing into the Levis Faculty Center, where the University Board of Trustees was having a meeting. Individuals held signs calling for healthcare, equity and union protections.

Thursday’s protest was organized following the most recent session of negotiations between the board and GEO.

The contract between graduate employees and the University expired on Aug. 15, and the two groups have been negotiating a new one for over six months. GEO proposed their contract during the first session in early March, and the Board offered their response last month. 

“Graduate students are vital members of the University community, and the administration is committed to reaching a new agreement that is fair and equitable,” said Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for Public Affairs, in an email. “This package proposal was designed as a signal to the GEO that the University is serious about reaching a swift resolution that is in the best interest of the GEO, the graduate assistants covered under the agreement, and the University.”

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    Although the package presented by the board tries to address some of the issues outlined in GEO’s proposal, members said that they’re dissatisfied with the package’s scope and frustrated with its definition of equity.

    “Our definition of equity encompasses race, ethnicity, parental status, as well as gender and disability.” said Megan Mericle, communications co-chair at GEO and graduate student studying English. “The board has yet to present a full, comprehensive and equitable counter-proposal to us.” 

    Their previous contract was agreed upon by representatives of GEO and the Board in August 2017. 

    According to GEO members, it’s imperative that the University takes into consideration the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as current rates of inflation when creating new conditions of employment for graduate students. 

    After the bargaining session on Monday, Nachiketa Adhikari, co-president of GEO and graduate student studying mathematics, said the response to inflation by the University has not been sufficient. 

    “​​The wage that we initially proposed was calculated in March, and we’ve already been hearing concerns from members that given inflation in July and August, that might not be enough,” Adhikari said. “One of the concerns we do have is that the longer these negotiations last, the more impact inflation will have on (the fairness of graduate employee wages).”

    Another expectation outlined by GEO is that the University makes sure that other conditions are included — not just wages. Some of these include health care during the summer, standardized English proficiency requirements and protections against potential retaliation by administration. 

    In her statement addressing the Board during the protest on Thursday, Chelsea Birchmier, GEO officer and graduate student studying psychology, explained that what initially drew her to the University was the promise of benefits beyond just wages. 

    The only thing standing between me and doubling my college debt was that (the University) offered a guaranteed tuition waiver, wages, health care and other benefits,” Birchmier said.

    According to Kaler, these demands are secondary in the process of drafting this contract. 

    “The University is hopeful that GEO will move the discussion to wages. Once that happens, the University is confident that there will be progress toward an agreement,” Kaler said in her email. The University and the GEO still need to discuss numerous proposals related to the secondary issues raised by GEO … We hope the GEO will focus their efforts on items that impact the majority of the graduate assistants and withdraw the proposals covering these secondary issues.”

    Graduate employee negotiations can also affect the undergraduates they teach, Birchmier said.

    “(Graduate employment) conditions don’t just affect me and other graduate (teacher’s assistants) — they also manifest in the classroom,” Birchmier said. “If I’m overworked, underpaid, sick and unable to pay for health care, my students’ quality of education suffers.”

    The next bargaining session between the GEO and the University is scheduled for Sept. 27.


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