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Graduate union approves 1-day walkout

April 21, 2008

Computer science graduate student and graduate employee Art Covert leads picketers in chants Friday morning outside the Administration Building. Approximately 136 people attended the informational picket to let the MSU Board of Trustees know what they want for graduate employee contract negotiations.

Photo by Hannah Engelson | The State News

MSU students could see their teaching assistants deliver a different kind of lecture today — one led not from podiums and chalkboards, but from bullhorns and banners.

Following a 24-hour online vote, about 81 percent of the Graduate Employees Union’s nearly 900 eligible members voted in favor of staging a one-day walkout if a contract was not reached early this morning.

The union’s contract with the university expires May 15.

If the walkout occurs, the almost 1,200 teaching and research assistants covered by the union’s contract could take part in at least nine campus picket lines.

Most of the positions would be near entrances to the university or buildings on campus, requiring anyone going to work or class to cross the picket line, said Julia Smith-Heck, assistant staff representative for the union.

“We’re looking to set up positions around labor not bound by strike limitations, like the building trade,” Smith-Heck said, referring to the construction site on Farm Lane.

Although the union has the support of labor organizations such as the Coalition of Labor Organizations at MSU, the university will not be shut down, MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon said.

“If they choose to (walk out), the university will still function,” Simon said.

Although the union doesn’t want to stage the walkout, members feel it’s the only option left to get their point across, said Art Covert, president-elect of the union.

“It’s taken way too long — we should have had a contract by now,” Covert said. “We’ve reached a point where this is the only way we’re gonna get our voices to be heard.”

The walkout would come on the heels of a 136-person picket Friday on the steps of the Administration Building after the MSU Board of Trustees meeting.

The union has been involved in multiple bargaining sessions and contract negotiations with the university since October.

The union is asking for a 5 percent annual wage increase, one-dependent health care coverage, Other Eligible Individual benefits for domestic partners, retained parking rights and a raised prescription medicine coverage cap from $5,000 to $10,000.

Thus far, the university has only addressed the wage issue, offering a 2 percent wage increase. The university originally offered a 1.75 percent increase.

MSU ranks seventh in the Big Ten for graduate student wages, with most TAs and RAs making $11,322 per year on half-time pay.

“In a worker context, the time spent — while extraordinarily valuable to the university — is not that of a full-time employee,” Simon said.

“So the target for grad students is others in our peer comparison.”

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