Grad employee union wins full pay for diversity work

Agitating for a more inclusive, diverse work environment is not easy. From attending hours of meetings, serving on committees, facilitating difficult conversations with colleagues and senior staff, and gathering and analyzing data from surveys, to establishing new protocols, all while practicing diplomacy at every step, diversity work is time-consuming and exhausting. Squeezing it in between a "real" job or two is a quick way to burn out.

That's why the news about diversity work at the University of Michigan is so groundbreaking.

Starting this September, graduate employees will help the University of Michigan implement its strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion, while being compensated with full tuition waivers, stipends that cover the cost of living and health insurance benefits. This marks the first time that any university has provided union-level pay and benefits to graduate workers who do diversity work on campus, thanks to a campaign led by a coalition of labor and racial justice activists.

Diversity banners at the University of Michigan

The Graduate Employees' Organization and the Multicultural Leadership Council campaigned aggressively for the creation of formal positions that offer fair compensation. "Students from marginalized communities often do diversity work with little or no pay," explains Jamie Tam, chair of GEO's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee and a member of the MLC. "When we expect free or cheap labor from vulnerable groups, it actually exacerbates social disparities. That's unacceptable."

"Fair compensation shows we recognize [marginalized students'] lived experiences and value their expertise, and that we need their leadership," said Velma Lopez, a member of the GEO DEI committee.

The proposal to create unionized positions for grad employees to do DEI work was initially rejected by the university during GEO's contract negotiations. Despite demands from the campus community, administrators refused to discuss the proposal for months, only agreeing to fund the DEI positions after the union authorized a two-day work stoppage the week before final examinations, when the absence of graduate student instructors would have halted university operations.

The university is now contractually required to hire at least six graduate students as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Graduate Student Staff Assistants (DEI GSSAs) with tuition waivers, living stipends and union benefits effective September 2017. While this fell short of the initial proposal to create 23 positions, the shift in campus mentality has already taken place; three additional DEI GSSAs are being hired because of some administrators' desire for students with high levels of expertise to help implement diversity programs.

The new workers will help implement initiatives that recruit and retain a more diverse student body, faculty and staff; develop more robust cultural skills training across all campus constituencies; support students experiencing bias; and implement training in inclusive teaching methods.

The diversity positions are particularly unique because they include health insurance benefits. Vidhya Aravind, a student involved in the campaign, describes how access to healthcare through these roles makes the difference: "As a brown, trans girl, I find myself constantly doing DEI labor to make my academic environments more inclusive, but I struggle at home with the costs of healthcare, which I need to transition. Health insurance would allow students like me to survive and still be able to do this work."

At a time when colleges are struggling to address hate crimes and racial tension on campus, the creation of well-paid student positions designed to combat bias and discrimination is especially significant. "Now more than ever, we need to be paying attention to how we are valuing, or not valuing, diversity labor," says Tam. "There are consequences to climate and safety when we don't value diversity labor enough."

[Virginia Myers, GEO press release]