Bargaining for social justice

As more and more college campuses focus on equity, diversity and inclusion, graduate employees at the University of Michigan are breaking new ground with a logical premise: People working for social justice should be paid for that work.

No more squeezing in a few hours to organize workshops on implicit bias or to recruit students from minority-serving institutions—while still trying to balance regular assignments, teaching and research. The Graduate Employees’ Organization has proposed that graduate assistants be assigned fully compensated, 20-hours-a-week, union-represented positions, the sole purpose of which would be to implement the university’s ambitions around equity.

The University of Michigan already has a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative, says GEO President John Ware. “It has some real strengths and a lot of great ideas. But very few of the schools or colleges have the dedicated staff to effectively carry out their plans. … They’re relying too much on people who are expected to do this on top of their regular duties.” Assigning and paying people to do the work will move the plan from paper to reality. Hired DEI workers could, for example, plan events such as Coming Out Week, promote trainings on inclusive teaching, develop recruitment materials for diverse students, and act as point person to help students who experience discrimination find the resources they need.

As students themselves, GEO members have a particular advantage when it comes to outreach: “The student body as a whole is a lot less comfortable discussing diversity, equity and inclusion with faculty and staff than they are with other students,” says Ware. “Graduate students are ideally positioned to serve that function.” They also bring their own student experience to the table as the administration works to understand and meet diversity needs on campus.

GEO’s proposal would create 23 fully compensated DEI positions across 19 of the university’s schools and colleges. A petition circulated in February shows that the campus community is behind the idea: In less than a month, more than 1,000 campus-affiliated individuals had signed on, and more than 35 campus organizations had co-signed a joint statement of support. Administrators met with the union to discuss possibilities, though they have refused to address it at the bargaining table.

“We believe that the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic planning initiative will fail without financial investments,” GEO wrote in a statement. Noting that most diversity work is done by marginalized people, GEO argues that their unpaid, time-consuming efforts can hamper their ability to advance their own careers. “The current policy of expecting free labor from marginalized people undermines the integrity of the entire DEI campus enterprise.”

Social justice and anti-racist policy feels especially urgent at Michigan, where in February racist emails circulated throughout campus from accounts that had been hacked. “Hi n*****s, I just wanted to say that I plan to kill all of you. White power! The KKK has returned!!! Heil Trump!!!!” read one. “Hi you f**ing filthy Jews, I just wanted to say the SS will rise again and kill all of your filthy souls. Die in a pit of eternal fire!” read another. These followed a campaign of racist fliers last fall.

Building on the AFT’s tradition of social justice 

At least 41 of the AFT’s higher education locals have some element of “diversity” in their contracts. United University Professions, at the State University of New York, has successfully bargained to establish campus grants, some of which fund affirmative action and diversity opportunities such as conferences and workshops. It also has bargained for a leave program that gives preference to minorities, women, people with disabilities and employees with military status, for leave with pay to complete research or other work needed to attain tenure.

Green River United Faculty Coalition’s contract, in Auburn, Wash., allows vacant positions to be held open an additional four weeks if there is insufficient diversity among applicants. And United Academics of the University of Oregon has bargained that faculty could list their contributions to diversity and equity— such as teaching multicultural courses, working on committees that deal with diversity, and mentoring disadvantaged students outside the normal workload—as part of their evaluations for tenure review and promotion.

Outside of contracts, unions have long been advocates for equity and racial justice: The AFT is famous for expelling locals that refused to desegregate in the 1950s. Back at SUNY’s United University Professions, standing committees include Affirmative Action, Black and Latino Faculty/Staff Concerns, Sexual Orientations United for Liberty, and Women’s Rights and Concerns committees. At UA-Oregon, the union is exploring a long list of proposals, including child care for evening meetings, compensation for a high-service workload, more social justice events, trainings and professional development opportunities, and support for ethnic studies.

Brown University has signaled it will spend $100 million to promote diversity and inclusion. And this personal account from Yale graduate and University of Chicago faculty member Adom Getachew shows what an impact the union had at Yale, which eventually launched a $50 million initiative to increase faculty diversity: “Building union power and seeking racial justice at the university could not be separated,” she writes.

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