Tuesday, June 18, 2024

MSU Graduate Employees Union ratifies contract granting higher wages, expanded healthcare, falls short of goals

May 15, 2024
Rally at the Olin Health Center on March 21, 2024.
Rally at the Olin Health Center on March 21, 2024.

A union of graduate students employed by Michigan State University has renewed its contract with the university, winning increased wages and expanded healthcare coverage but falling short of the group's original goals.

The new contract between MSU and the Graduate Employees Union, or GEU, takes effect Thursday and will expire in 2028. It's the result of months of bargaining and hours-long negotiation sessions.

The union, which has been in place since 2001, represents graduate teaching assistants, research assistants, fellows, and other employees. It has over 350 members who pay dues worth 1.6% of their pay.

The GEU ratified the contract last week with 91% approval. 

The agreement "is a reflection of the university’s commitment to bargaining in good faith and resolving differences, such as increased stipends and improved health care benefits that are mutually beneficial to both parties,” MSU spokesperson Mark Bullion wrote in a statement.

Raises

Under the new contract, all graduate students employed by the university will see a 12% raise in salaries over a four-year period, starting August 2024. Minimum stipend rates will also increase by 19% over four years.

PhD student Briana Markoff, who co-led negotiations for the GEU, said the raise is still "not enough to catch up" with the rising housing rates in East Lansing.

"It used to be true that MSU paid us what it cost to live in East Lansing, but they don't anymore," said Markoff, who is also a teaching and research assistant. "What we really wanted was a raise that would bring us back to that."

GEU initially proposed a 68% raise to minimum stipends over four years, which Markoff said would have matched pay with the cost of living.

However, MSU argued that it is also struggling with inflation, and that graduate students only work part-time, so increased wages wouldn't be deserved, Markoff said.

Associate Vice President for Academic Human Resources Melissa Sortman, who represented the university during negotiations, was unavailable for an interview on the bargaining process this week.

Healthcare

Under the new agreement, union members will also see expanded healthcare coverage.

Previously, GEU members were limited to using Olin Health Center to address their medical needs. If they needed to see an outside physician, they'd generally have to get a referral from Olin Health Center otherwise they’d have to pay the costs themselves, according to Markoff.

The new contract allows members to freely use any providers covered by the university's new insurance plan, Aetna. Markoff said that most providers in Michigan accept the new insurance.

Expanded healthcare coverage has previously been a rallying point for the union. 

GEU President and doctoral student Cheyenne Kleiner said at a March rally outside Olin Health Center that the campus clinic isn't well suited for dealing with the medical needs of graduate employees.

"Olin is mainly meant to serve undergraduates, so it's a lot of people coming in with the flu and with basic sick issues,” Kleiner said at the time. "But graduate students range anywhere from 25 to being parents in their 30s, 40s, 50s and older. There's a much larger range of medical issues that we have to deal with."

The new agreement will make it easier for students to use different options.

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"Now we're going to be able to go to urgent care and hospitals directly, without needing the referral,” Markoff said. "This is a combination of a lot of union action over many many years, and we're so happy that our action has finally paid off."

MSU will now also cover 90% of an employee's dependents' healthcare premiums, 10% more than the last contract. The increase benefits partners of international students who can't legally work in the country and don't have access to insurance other than what MSU offers, Markoff said.

Union members also have eight weeks of parental leave, the first four of which will be paid. Previously, only one week was paid.

The union failed to get free dental and vision coverage, which they had called for at their March rally. Currently, the university covers 50% of members' dental premiums. There is no vision coverage.

OIE supportive measures

GEU members who have filed complaints with the Office of Institutional Equity — a university department that receives reports of sexual assault, discrimination and other misconduct within MSU — now have access to a higher level of union representation during the lengthy investigatory process.

“If you file a complaint against your supervisor, your boss, and it takes two years to determine whether or not they were actually harming you, what do you do in that time?" Markoff said. "You can't just go back to work for them."

While MSU already offers complainants interim measures during investigations to protect them from harmful situations, such as transferring them to a different department or changing employee schedules, the new contract allows the GEU to have more input on whether the support offered is adequate and will impact their employment.

"If somebody said, 'The interim measures aren't working,’ or, ‘They're not adequate,’ the person has no power in that conversation, right?” she said. "They just have to hope that the university will help them. We can now be part of the conversation in which we're working to meaningfully protect the person's access to their employment while the case is being investigated."

Supervisors are now required to meet with graduate student employees at least twice a semester to discuss their workload.

The contract also allows international graduate student employees to be reimbursed up to $350 for a federal fee they have to pay to study in the country.

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