Tuesday, May 19, 2015

GEO (The Graduate Employee Organization) – Your Contract and Your Union

If you’re an incoming graduate student, accepting your department’s offer probably involved accepting a funding letter that told you where your money would come from for the next few years. If some of that funding will come from teaching, then there’s an even more important document that you might not yet know exists: the contract between the university and GEO (the graduate employee labour union) that guarantees the employment conditions of all graduate student instructors.
Before I say a bit about what GEO is and how it works, let’s have a look at the contract and in particular the parts of it that especially affect international students. It’s online here , and worth getting to know. It’s renegotiated every couple of years—most recently in 2010 and 2013—and issues that affect international students are always under discussion.
So what has GEO achieved for international students recently? A few examples below from the last two contract-revisions:
Did you know that once you start teaching at the university you’re automatically entitled to have your SEVIS fee reimbursed (remember, the $200 you had to pay for vague ‘homeland security reasons’ before you could even apply for a Visa)? The GEO contract guarantees that if you fill out the relevant paperwork within 4 semesters of starting to teach at U of M, then the university will give you that $200 back.
Meanwhile, if English isn’t your first language, you have to pass a test to show that you speak it well enough to teach. The GEO contract makes sure this process is standardized so that individual departments can’t hold different instructors to different standards. It also ensures that this test isn’t used as an excuse to avoid funding commitments, as if students don’t pass their departments still have to honour their financial offer. This ensures that it’s in everyone’s interests for students to reach the necessary level of proficiency.
If you have to take a short course at the English Language Institute to establish that your English is up to scratch, meanwhile, the most recent contract makes sure that you get paid for this training.  In the next contract, GEO hopes to get your healthcare insurance to apply during that training period too.
The contract also guarantees that you still get paid if you have to travel to deal with immigration procedures during term-time, or if you have to travel due to a death in the family. Among the things GEO hopes to achieve in the next contract is to get longer bereavement leave options: currently, instructors are entitled to 3 days off to return home when a family member dies.  If, like lots of international students here, you live a 12-hour plane-flight away, this doesn’t allow much time with family and friends...

So what exactly is GEO, how does it work, and what’s its relation to you? It stands for Graduate Employee Organization, and it’s a labour union composed of Michigan’s graduate instructors. GEO negotiates the contract with the university every couple of years, it represents its members to the university whenever someone breaches the contract, and it organizes social events and training. All instructors are part of the union, paying a small fee each semester to have it represent them. For an even tinier additional fee, most instructors choose to be full members of the union, which allows them to attend membership meetings and vote on actions and policies. As long as you teach at Michigan while you’re studying, GEO will represent you however little attention you pay to it. The entire institution runs on the effort of your peers (and a couple of professional staff), though, so it’s good to know how things work.
Each department should have at least one steward, who represents the department to the union at a weekly meeting. If you have questions or problems regarding your working conditions, your department steward should be the first point of contact. Stewards may organize small meetings in their departments from time to time; they have their weekly meeting of all stewards; and two or three times a semester there are open meetings for the whole membership (General Membership Meetings) to attend and take votes on policies and actions.  And alongside all this, there are distinct caucuses that deal with specific issues that affect particular populations, from parents, to LGTQ people, to those with disabilities, to, of course, international students. Keep an eye out for messages about the international student caucus…
This structure lets seemingly isolated grievances lead to new contract language: when I was a department steward in English, someone raised an issue in a department meeting that I brought up for discussion at a steward’s meeting; people told me to suggest a solution as a contract amendment at the next membership meeting, and when I did, it turned out that people in Chemistry had been having a related problem for years. They picked it up and wrote language for the contract, and this was the first amendment the university accepted in that round of contract revision. Getting actively involved in GEO is thus one way to really directly change your working conditions for the better.
Last but not least, there’s more to the union than the contract. One of my favourite things about my two years as a department steward was getting to meet people from so many other departments. PhD work can be quite isolating once coursework ends and the dissertation begins, and GEO was a great opportunity to meet and to work with people from across the university.
Working with GEO is also a very direct way to find out what’s going on in local and national politics.  US legal and political debates can seem alien and abstract when you come from a couple of oceans away, but GEO is constantly dealing with political events in Michigan and in the US more generally.  Given that PhD students might be in Michigan for upwards of 9 or 10, knowing what’s going on in the state outside the Ann Arbor bubble is never a bad thing.
Less politically, meanwhile, GEO is an excellent source of free drinks and clothes. Every year they seemingly print up more t-shirts than there are people in Ann Arbor, so if you go along to a couple of GEO events per year, you get enough good-quality t-shirts to make buying your own unnecessary. If only they made socks…
You don’t have to get actively involved with GEO for it to play an important part in your time at Michigan. The union’s negotiations with the university dictate the contract you work under whenever you teach, and it’s important to know your contract, your rights, and your obligations. Not only to know them, indeed, but to play a direct part in creating them. Next contract negotiations are in 2016: okay, so you only just got here, but why not start thinking about what you’d like to change…

Alistair (Ali) Chetwynd
Summer Orientation Peer Adviser
Ph.D.: English Language & Literature
Country of Origin: UK