THE MICHIGAN DAILY - Friday, February 23, 1996

Friday FOCUS: GEO comes together over years of contract negotiations, fights

By Anupama Reddy, Daily Staff Reporter

Twenty-one years ago this month, members of the Graduate Employees
Organization held out for four weeks against cold weather and several
University counterproposals before relenting and signing their first
contract on March 14, 1975.
Today GEO plans to announce the results of a strike authorization vote that
members cast ballots for last week. If the majority of the organization
agrees to strike, then GEO steering committee will strongly consider a
Marti Bombyk, a graduate student instructor in the '70s, recalled her
experience this week as a strike captain in 1975. She said the union was
seen as "subversive in my day, but now it's much more accepted."
"I learned there was a need for intellectual workers to be represented by a
union," said Bombyk, now a visiting professor in the School of Social Work.
"The union is a great economic opportunity for graduate students and
provides the University with the best students."
Current University chief negotiator Dan Gamble said the history of GEO and
the University has been "a pretty darn good relationship."
"I get calls from around the country, other schools about their TAs starting
to organize. They see it as negative thing, but I haven't found that here at
the University."
But 1975 was not the first time disgruntled "teaching fellows" refused to
teach their classes at the University. In 1970, political science TFs called
off classes for a week in February. They were protesting the department's
decision to cut $18,000 in funds for teaching fellowships.
An article in the Feb. 11, 1970 issue of The Michigan Daily said, "Prof. A.
Organski, whose introductory course on American politics includes 22
recitation sections, yesterday said, `From what I understand, my sections
have not met. I don't think anybody else's did, either.'"
Students reacted to the so-called "moratorium" in the Feb. 24 issue of the
Daily with some concern about the long-term effects of the work stoppage.
Bill Jacobs, a student at the time, was quoted as saying, "We don't really
know what is going on. Class was only canceled for a week, so it didn't make
too much difference.
"Nevertheless, teaching fellows are supposed to teach and they defeat their
purpose when they are not teaching."
However, the birth of the current union did not begin with either strike.
The teaching fellows' union began when they filed "with the (Michigan)
Employment Relations Committee ... for recognition as the collective
bargaining agent for all University teaching fellows," according to Daily
At the time, administrators estimated that 1,200 TFs were employed by the
University. Organizing TFs claimed they had collected signatures from 30
percent of the TF pool -- the minimum needed to file a petition for
recognition with MERC.
During the early years of GEO, faculty members expressed their reservations
about the TFs' grievances.
"I can't have any reaction at all. What's their basic purpose? Who's
involved? We don't really know what they want," said classics department
chair Theodore Buttrey in the Jan. 24, 1970 issue of the Daily.
Some professors said the organizing of TFs would tighten many department
budgets and create an economic dilemma.
Economics department chair Harvey Brazer said in 1970, "If teaching fellow
pay were raised, let's say from $3,000 to $5,000, it would impinge on the
departments. It would be likely to mean larger classes and less faculty."
MERC killed the petition and sided with the University. They decided TFs
were not "an appropriate collective bargaining unit" and instead were part
of a larger group including research and staff assistants.
The summer of 1973 proved to be a hot one for teaching fellows, with several
administrative decisions leading to a second organizing drive by the union
-- then called the Organization of Teaching Fellows, according to GEO
The Nov. 2, 1973 issue of the Daily reported that TFs were "calling for the
creation of a `living wage' for TFs and a total removal of tuition for
teaching fellows beginning in the fall of 1974."
Former University President Robben Fleming, according to the Nov. 8, 1973
issue of the Daily, responded by allocating $2 million of a $3.75 million
surplus to teaching fellows "in the form of financial aid and increased
OTF executive committee member Lionel Biron said at the time that OTF
would accept the money but with caution. "They're not doing this out of
their own good will," Biron said. "What they're really afraid of is that we're
going to organize."
According to GEO records, OTF members -- now referred to as "teaching
assistants" -- joined forces with other graduate student assistants to form
the Graduate Employees Organization, certified by MERC on April 15, 1974.
A month-long strike began in February 1975 after eight months of mediation
between the University and GEO failed. A state fact finder was called in to
analyze the dispute and recommend a settlement.
GEO spokesperson Dave Gordon said in the Jan. 22, 1975 issue of the Daily,
"It's to (the University's) advantage to drag out the negotiations until the
end of the academic year. By that time most of us will have completed our
job service."
The University agreed to give an 8-percent pay raise to all 2,200 Graduate
Student Assistants. The union rejected the University offer, saying it was a
"stalling" tactic.
On the evening of Feb. 5, 1975, 1,000 GEO members resolved to take a walkout
vote, backed by a strong endorsement of the Michigan Brotherhood of
Union leader Mark Kaplan said, "It's time to stop waiting. It's time to show
them (the University) that we're ready to strike until they're ready to come
Some professors said they would not require TAs to teach if they were on
"I have no plans to force people to teach if they don't want to. The effect
on us will be mostly in the primary courses, and I think it's clear that
most of them will shut down," Psychology dDepartment Chair Keith Smith said
in the Feb. 5, 1975 issue of the Daily.
But not all TAs favored the strike. Martha Krieg, a romance languages TA,
said in February 1975 that her students were more important than signing a
"Think of that last semester senior who wants to finish so he can get a job
and make some money or start into summer school somewhere," Krieg said. "I
have no right to screw somebody like that."
She also said the University did not have as much money as GEO assumed.
"I worked in the library for awhile and I saw the budget requests to the
legislature, and I know the University does not have hoards of money," Krieg
said. "There's a lot tied up by law in certain grants and funds. GEO sees
dollars but they don't know how difficult it is to have money transferred
into certain areas."
In a vote, 689 out of 882 GEO members approved a strike that began at 12:01
a.m. on Feb. 11 of that year.
Last minute efforts to break the deadlock the previous weekend had failed.
Fleming said he was confused about GEO's decision to strike.
"I don't follow the logic of on one hand saying, 'Yes, we are making
progress,' but on the other saying, 'Yes, we are going to strike.'"
GEO chief negotiator Sandy Wilkinson assured that "a strike in no way
suggests negotiations have broken off."
Class attendance was cut in half the first day of the strike. Students were
not sure which classes would still be taught, and some joined the picket
Then-LSA junior George Ellis said in the Feb. 12, 1975 issue of the Daily
that GEO had a right to strike but not to bother students.
"I'm very surprised at the way that some of the GEO members are acting,"
Ellis said. "They have been making smart remarks and tried to keep me from
entering the building. I support GEO's right to strike, but I have to be in
class because I'll be held responsible for what I miss."
After four weeks of closed negotiations, GEO agreed to a tentative agreement
on March 12, 1975.
Then-physics TA Mike Shane said in the Daily of the contract, "I'm not
satisfied, but I'll settle for it."
For the next five years, GEO began a court battle with the University over
the classification of TAs as employees or students. In November 1981, Judge
Schlomo Sperka of MERC ruled in the union's favor and ordered a new contract
be negotiated.
Bombyk was still part of GEO at the time of the court ruling and said the
University was "obstructionist and short-sighted" during the trial.
"When I was in the union, we were under such an attack with the court case,"
Bombyk said in an interview Tuesday. "We didn't have such a high membership.
Other people wondered if we were holding onto a lost cause.
"It felt like we were in a David and Goliath cause."

©1996 The Michigan Daily

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