Last night's meeting of the University of Michigan's Graduate Employees Organization was set up so that its members could vote on whether to start an open-ended strike today. Instead, members of the union of graduate student instructors at the Ann Arbor campus unanimously ratified an agreement, struck in the wee hours of Friday morning, that ended six months of negotiation over a new three-year contract.
The agreement, which came at the end of a final bargaining session that lasted more than 16 hours, followed by a week a one-day strike by the teaching assistants. After some tough words in the weeks leading up to the agreement, university officials and leaders of the graduate workers' union praised each other and acknowledged that both sides had given ground.
"While this agreement of course does not include everything we wanted, it makes significant progress toward our goals of ensuring access and eliminating discrimination," the union, an affiliate of the Michigan Federation of Teachers, said on its Web site. 
"There's just an incredible amount of hard work that went into bargaining on both sides of the table," said Julie Peterson, a spokeswoman for Michigan.
The four-year contract between the university and the Graduate Employees Organization expired in February, and the graduate instructors, who teach nearly a quarter of the undergraduate course sections, had been working without one since then. Under that pact, graduate employees at Michigan earn about $14,000 a year on average for what the university characterizes as about half-time work.
Negotiations on a contract renewal began in November but the university and the graduate employees remained far apart on numerous issues. On March 25, the teaching assistants held a one-day strike to try to stimulate the negotiations, and the union had set today as the start date for a full-blown strike if a contract was not reached.
Both sides agree that the pace of negotiations picked up considerably last week as that deadline neared. Extra bargaining days or sessions were added last Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, and the final issues -- regarding pay and health benefits -- were worked out in the late evening Thursday.
The deadline "created a real sense of urgency for both sides, to make sure you got to an agreement over the week," said Dave Dobbie, president of the Graduate Employees Organization. The new contract addresses a wide range of issues, including central issues like pay and benefits and relatively small details such as expanding pay for jury duty to include occasions when graduate employees are required to participate in immigration hearings.
Compensation: The accord gives graduate employees annual cost-of-living raises equal to those given to faculty members in the university's main undergraduate college, or a minimum of 2.5 percent in 2006, 3 percent in 2007, and 3 percent in 2008, whichever is greater.
Before Thursday's breakthrough, the union had been seeking a one-time raise of about $1,300 at the start of the contract and cost of living increases of 5 percent, 3 percent, and 3 percent a year after that; the university had been offering minimums of 2 percent, 2.5 percent, and 2.5 percent, respectively. "We came up a little and they came down a little," Peterson said.
Dobbie said the graduate employees were particularly satisfied with changes designed to bring up the hourly pay of graduate instructors who work less than quarter-time.
Benefits: The deal expands insurance coverage in a variety of ways, including by providing dental coverage immediately rather than after two terms of employment; offering $30,000 in life insurance at no cost to the employees; and providing some university-paid health coverage to graduate employees who work less than quarter-time.
Graduate employees had sought to lock in individual co-pays and other costs at their current levels; the new deal will not do that, but it will ensure that co-pays in the GradCare health care plan, which about 95 percent of the grad assistants choose, will not rise by more than $5 over the life of the contract.
"Making sure those costs are not going to increase very much at all" was "our members' top priority," said Dobbie, a doctoral student in social work and sociology.
The new contract will also:
- Add "gender identity" and "gender expression" to the list of protected categories under the antidiscrimination clause.
- Give international students the option of taking a required English-language test before they participate in a now-mandatory three-week training session, which many now view as a waste of time.
- Increase the subsidies available to students for child care, and, beginning in 2006, increase those payments by the cost of living each year.
Perhaps the thorniest issue in the negotiations was over benefits for same-sex partners and other beneficiaries. Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment in November defining marriage as between a man and a woman only.
The amendment has raised significant concerns at public institutions like Michigan that offer benefits to the partners of gay employees, and the graduate employees had sought language in the new contract that would allow each employee to designate one adult as a family member beneficiary.
University officials say they, too, are concerned about the possible loss of benefits for same-sex partners and have vowed to vigorously fight any attempt to eliminate them. But while the students' "argument was about losing same-sex benefits, their proposal would have dramatically expanded the potential benefits pool," Peterson said, by permitting a graduate worker to provide benefits to a domestic partner of the opposite sex and even a parent.
Under Michigan's preferred approach, which the students' ultimately accepted as part of the new contract, the university agreed that it will reopen the contract to find a way to protect the same-sex benefits if "a court at any level should rule against any benefits plan that is similar to ours," Peterson said.
Members of the Graduate Employees Organization will vote over the next week to formally ratify the contract.