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Judge Denies U of M Request for Order Ending Grad Assistants’ Strike

Credit: iStock

Jon King, Michigan Advance

A Washtenaw County judge has denied a request for a restraining order filed by the University of Michigan against its striking graduate student workers.

Now entering its second week, the walkout by members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) AFT Local 3550 began March 29, with economic issues the main point of contention.

The union is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and represents Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs) and Graduate Student Staff Assistants (GSSAs) at the University of Michigan.

U of M graduate instructors hit the picket line

The request for a temporary restraining order forcing the nearly 2,300 graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants back to work was filed by the University of Michigan the day after the strike began.

U of M alleges the union is in breach of contract for striking despite its agreement not to do so while the current deal, which expires May 1, is in effect. 

On Tuesday, however, Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Carol Kuhnke turned down the request after hearing arguments from lawyers for both the university and the union. A follow-up hearing is set for Monday.

University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said the university will continue to negotiate with the union, but is also prepared to share evidence in court next week to halt the strike.

“The ongoing strike violates the law, defies the terms of the current contract and has created unnecessary disruption for our students,” Fitzgerald said. “Our top priority continues to be carrying out the critical educational mission of this university.”

Meanwhile, Amir Fleischmann, contract chair for GEO, said the decision was a victory for graduate workers.

“We argued that graduate workers are not causing irreparable damage to the university, and the court agreed, said Fleischmann following Tuesday’s hearing..“Graduate workers are striking because we have no other options left. We’re an important part of this campus, something the university acknowledged today. All we’re after is a fair contract that reflects all we contribute to the university. Instead, the university would rather sue us. It’s disappointing but not surprising.”

Prior to the hearing, hundreds of graduate workers and their allies marched in the rain from the campus Diag to the courthouse.

“Not having instructors for discussion sections is difficult, but we’ll be OK,” says Karthik Pasupula, an undergraduate in the College of Literature, Science, and Arts. “It’s a much bigger problem that the university expects my graduate student instructors to work for so little money when the administration can absolutely afford to pay them more.” 

The main sticking point is a union proposal for a 60% wage increase in the first year of a new contract, with additional increases tied to inflation in the second and third years. So far, the GEO has turned down three counteroffers from the university, including an 11.5% pay increase over the next three years.

Follow-up bargaining sessions between the two sides are scheduled for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

This story was written by Jon King, a contributor to the Michigan Advance, where this story first appeared.

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