Graduate employees at Wayne State University won a major victory last week: a tentative contract agreement.
Reached after 10 months of negotiations between the Graduate Employees Organizing Committee (GEOC) and Wayne State officials, the agreement raises pay and grants benefits to teaching and research assistants.
The proposed agreement is the first of its kind at WSU. It is expected to pass easily when graduate employees vote on it next week.
"We are really excited," says Darlynn Griffin, a teaching assistant in the Romance languages department and a member of the GEOC steering committee. "We think it means more respect for research and teaching assistants and better working conditions."
Under the proposed two-and-a-half year agreement, teaching and research assistants will receive a 3 percent pay raise each year. The agreement also includes a retroactive raise of $395 for last year, a tuition waiver and the same health benefits that WSU faculty receive. That includes dental insurance, which the graduate employees did not have prior to the agreement.
Griffin says that the agreement also will define what is expected of research and teaching assistants and how many hours they will work each week. She says this is a major issue because many graduate employees were expected to work more than the 20 hours that their fellowship grant requires.
Jon Curtiss, a Michigan Federation of Teachers organizer who helped work on the GEOC campaign at WSU, says that getting the university to agree to include research assistants in the contract is a significant victory. Though research assistants are included in union contracts at many universities, Curtiss says University of Michigan graduates, for instance, lost a similar battle in 1981.
Curtiss says it is not yet clear who is covered by the contract. "Thats the $60,000 question," he says. "It is more than we started out with and less than we wanted." The proposed agreement covers teaching assistants who teach their own classes or are assigned teaching or grading duties six or more hours a week, and research assistants who work eight hours or more a week and whose work benefits the university or an outside granting agent.
"We expect that it will be a bit of a fight to settle person by person who is in the union," says Curtiss. He anticipates that the contract will cover about 300 teaching assistants and about 100 research assistants.
Louis Lessem, general counsel for WSU, says that the university is pleased to have reached the tentative agreement after 10 months. "It is good that we have accomplished this," he says. "I think it is reasonable to both sides." Lessem also says that contract talks went much quicker than expected. "It was a long negotiation because we have been starting from scratch. But for a first contract we were actually quite fast," he says. "The average time at other universities, you will find, is twice as long."
Ballots will be sent to graduate employees this week and must be returned Sept. 8. Once ratified, the contract goes into effect immediately.