The University of Michigan has moved to end a nine-month negotiation with the union representing its graduate student instructors and assistants, offering the group its "last, best and final offer."
The three-year contract proposal, which comes a week before the fall semester begins, includes varying pay increases for graduate employees at the university's three campuses, improved workplace safety policies and lower healthcare costs.
The Graduate Employees’ Organization, or GEO 3550, is one of the oldest graduate student unions in the country. It represents roughly 2,300 graduate employees teaching at the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint campuses.
Union members are expected to vote on the offer this week. If the union accepts the deal, it could bring an end to the nearly five-month strike, the longest in GEO 3550's 53-year history.
Earlier this month, the union rejected a previous contract proposal that did not address its concerns over public safety, disability accommodations or pay parity across the three campuses.
Although the University of Michigan still described the negotiations as “contentious” on Sunday, the university and union have acknowledged that significant compromise has been made on both sides in recent weeks.
Meeting in the middle
The university's latest offer includes a 20% raise over three years for Ann Arbor graduate employees and a 10.5% raise over the same period for those at Dearborn. Flint graduate employees would receive an increase of about 9% a year.
Union leadership Monday lauded some of the progress made but stopped short of unequivocally endorsing the new deal.
"Graduate workers have taken big risks and endured significant hardship to stand up for each other, and now the Administration has agreed to many proposals that it previously claimed were infeasible or even impossible," Jared Eno, president of the union, said in a statement.
However, Eno added that the administration still hadn’t added key proposals to the offer.
"The bedrock of this campaign has been solidarity, and grad workers will decide together how to proceed,” Eno said.
The more pressing sticking points involve health and safety proposals both in the classroom and on campus.
For example, the union sought COVID-concious health guidelines, including improved filtration in instructional spaces and an allowance for graduate instructors to require masks in class.
Instead, the latest university proposal would classify providing well-fitted masks as a reasonable accommodation for immunocompromised workers and allow employees to bring their own portable air filtration to work. Instructors could also request a class be taught remotely if in-person instruction is canceled over health and safety concerns, under the university's offer.
Campus safety has also been a focal point for the union, which has pushed for a university-funded, community-led unarmed emergency response program instead of a campus police force.
The university's offer includes a promise from University of Michigan President Santa Ono to support that type or program, according to Lina Alam, co-chair of the union's communications committee.
"That's definitely the biggest movement we've seen on that front," Alam said Monday. "At the beginning of negotiations, academic HR said they couldn't even discuss anything related to nonpolice response teams."
Additionally, the contract proposal would create a three-year pilot program designed to help graduate employees leave unhealthy working relationships "including abusive, discriminatory and/or harassing relationships."
"It is our belief that this proposal is more than sufficient to make a positive vote for a tentative agreement by GEO members a clear-cut decision,” Laurie McCauley, the university's provost, said in a statement.
While the proposal represents the formal stop to the negotiation process, a no-vote from the union doesn't necessarily mark the end of its work or the strike, Alam said.
"If members are deeply discontent with this offer and don't want to ratify it, I don't think the fight is over," she said.