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University of Michigan graduate student workers poised to end long strike

graduate students marching
The Graduate Employees’ Organization, which represents graduate student instructors and graduate staff assistants, have been on strike since late March. Members expect to vote later this week on a deal to end the strike. (Bridge photo Isabel Lohman)
  • The union representing U-M graduate student instructors and staff assistants is nearing a tentative deal with the university 
  • The agreement, scheduled to be ratified by Friday, would give grad students a significant pay raise among other benefits 
  • The bitter strike began in late March and spilled into the courts

ANN ARBOR—The University of Michigan is poised to settle a nearly five-month strike with the union representing graduate student workers over pay and other benefits.  

The Graduate Employees’ Organization, which represents roughly 2,300 graduate student instructors and staff assistants across U-M’s three campuses, has been on strike since March 29. Members voted overnight into Tuesday morning to authorize the union’s bargaining team to reach a tentative agreement with the university. 


The union is expected to hold a ratification vote later this week and announce the voting results Friday. If ratified, the settlement would end a contentious, high-stakes strike that has impacted tens of thousands of U-M undergrads in addition to the warring parties. 


The university announced its “last, best and final offer” Sunday which included a 8 percent raise in the first year of the contract, a 6 percent raise in the second year and another 6 percent raise in the third year for graduate student instructors and staff assistants at the university’s Ann Arbor campus. The university relies heavily on grad workers to grade papers and tests of undergraduate students, lead classes and help with university programming.

GEO had asked for a 60 percent raise in the first year of its three-year contract and then raises tied to the cost of living. While the union did not get that amount directly in the tentative agreement, the union anticipates members receiving a 60 percent raise because of a separate graduate funding plan that guarantees summer funding to Ph.D students that the university committed to continuing. 

The university’s most recent offer included a letter of commitment that says it has no intent of discontinuing the graduate funding program.

GEO spokesperson and doctoral political science candidate Amir Fleischmann estimates that the combination of the two plans means most Ph.D. students will receive a 60 percent raise in the first year of the contract when compared to wages from the last contract.

A new incoming Ph.D. student will have an 80 percent raise by the time the contract ends compared to the last contract, according to Fleischmann. 

“The offer on the table contains historic wins,” GEO lead negotiator Evelyn Smith said in a statement. “The administration wants to take credit for these wins, but we know it wasn’t their generosity that got us here, but the power of an unprecedented member-driven long-haul strike.” 

Graduate student instructors and staff assistants will also have access to a transitional funding program to protect students against harassment or other threats. The three-year pilot program will provide up to one semester of funding for a student to transition out of an abusive, discriminatory or harassing relationship with their supervisor or colleagues. 

Graduate students will also have lower out-of-pocket maximums on mental health and physical therapy copays. The university is expanding gender-affirming benefits, too. 

The forthcoming agreement means the university gets the peace of mind that it can “start the fall term without any disruption to the educational mission of the university,” U-M spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald told Bridge Michigan. 

The deal provides more favorable terms for U-M grad students in Ann Arbor than for those on the Dearborn and Flint campuses. 

U-M-Dearborn graduate student workers would receive 3.5 percent raises each year of the three-year contract term. The Flint campus would have its minimum stipend aligned to the Dearborn pay. Graduate students on all three campuses would also receive a $1,000 bonus. 

“We are extremely pleased that GEO members have voted to sign a tentative contract agreement with the university and move this matter forward for ratification,” Fitzgerald said in a statement Tuesday. “We look forward to learning the outcome of the contract ratification vote later this week and a smooth start to the academic year next week.”

The union and the university have been in negotiations since November and the fight has been ugly at times. Undergraduate students had their last few weeks of classes last spring affected by the strike, with professors having to step in to grade end-of-semester tests and assignments, work normally done by grad students. 


The university had requested a Washtenaw County judge to order the striking workers back to work before the end of the semester but a judge refused. Administrators withheld wages for workers who did not fill out work attestation forms

Union leaders, in turn, submitted information to the university’s national accrediting body  contending the university falsified student grades during the strike. The accrediting body, the Higher Learning Commission, opened a review into the issue but said in a July 28 letter that it had not found “sufficient evidence” the university had been noncompliant with the accrediting body’s rules.

Earlier this month, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Laurie McCauley announced that if the graduate students’ strike spilled into the fall semester, which begins on Monday, they may be replaced for the entire semester.

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