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THURSDAY, May 2 — Graduate assistants at Michigan State University have assembled makeshift campsites in front of the Hannah Administration Building as they continue to pressure university officials for more money.
Several tents scattered nearby symbolically represent what some 1,300 employees in the MSU Graduate Employees Union will be able to afford to live in next year unless the university budges amid ongoing contract negotiations, according to union officials.
“We’ve had wins and losses on some non-economic issues over the last few weeks,” union President Nick Rowe said. “But what we’re experiencing right now is a complete lack of progress on any of our economic issues. We’re not making anything remotely close to a living wage at MSU and that obviously needs to change.”
Unionized graduate teaching assistants instruct about two-thirds of the classes taught on MSU’s campus, Rowe said. Their paychecks are based exclusively on two- or three-year collective bargaining agreements with the university. And students are growing increasingly frustrated after negotiations reached a stalemate over the last few weeks.
“Despite these reasonable and rational arguments, Michigan State University has done nothing to try to resolve this,” said Graduate Union spokesman Kevin Bird. “It’s my hope that the university will listen to us, find some sort of a moral backbone and find a small chunk of money to help the people who are vital to this university.”
Union officials said the annual stipend for teaching assistants rests at $15,400 while the living wage in Ingham County is about $23,600. The union wants a 30% increase to about $20,000. MSU would rather limit that increase to 3% — or an annual proposed increase of about $500, Rowe said.
And the union isn’t happy. Dozens of students — along with State Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. D-East Lansing and Ingham County Commissioner Todd Tennis — converged for a rally today outside the union’s newly founded tent city near the Hannah Administration Building. Their message: Find a working compromise.
“You were the frontlines when it came to issues like sexual assault on campus and you were not being heard,” Hertel said to the crowd. “The reality is, this university is more safe, more smart and functions because of you. Until you get a basic level of respect, until you get reasonable compensation, you should never stop fighting.”
Lisa Hawley, an MSU graduate assistant who spent the last 18 years as an elementary school teacher, said the least expensive housing option available for students near campus would still require at least 60% of a graduate student’s paycheck. Those rates — paired with comparatively low wages — force her to live elsewhere.
“Besides the fact they’re not paying us a living wage, what they’re offering us doesn’t value our experience and our knowledge,” Hawley added. “They need to show us they value the work we do by paying us a living wage.”
Rowe said contract negotiations between MSU and the union began in January. The union submitted a proposal the following month and was met with a much lower offer in return. Despite attempts to bridge the divide, Rowe contends the union has yet to receive a “substantive” counter-proposal several weeks later.
“If they’re not going to listen to us or attempt to silence our efforts, we’re going to make it known to the broader community,” he added. “We will continue to escalate our attempts to make sure people know what they’re doing. We’ll make sure students are taught, as a parting gift, about how the university treats its employees.”
University officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the ongoing negotiations.