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MSU graduate students land fresh union contract

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TUESDAY, May 7 — Graduate assistants at Michigan State University might have an easier time paying their rent next year after they negotiated higher wages through a yet-to-be-ratified, collective bargaining agreement.

The MSU Graduate Employees Union rallied and assembled a makeshift campground last Thursday in front of the Hannah Administration Building. The goal: Symbolize the meager buying power of their paychecks and put some pressure on university officials to give their union a better contract.

That request was met a few hours later.

“We didn’t think it would happen so quickly,” GEU President Nick Rowe said. “It’s a good middle ground for both sides here, and it’s more or less where we expected this to all end up.”

A tentative agreement is still subject to a formal vote of some 1,300 employees represented by the union. Rowe said the terms include a 2% raise later this year, a 5% raise over the next three years and a 2.5% bump in the final year of the contract in 2023. Health plans were also improved for graduate assistants with dependents, he said.

“This has reversed the penalty that we used to get for having dependents,” Rowe added. “We’re working with MSU to finalize access to short-term emergency childcare. This also makes sure those who are paid at the minimum stipend are moving up the ladder. There ended up being a lot of movement on our requests.”

Rowe said the university’s last offer included only a one-time, 3% salary increase later this year and more gradual, 1.5% increases during the remainder of the contract. The union didn’t get the 30% raise it had hoped for, but its membership is much closer to a livable wage than it has ever been offered before, Rowe contended.

“Parents struggle to care for their children and too many of our colleagues are severely rent-burdened,” Rowe said. “International students disproportionately faced the brunt of both issues. This new agreement attacks these problems on all fronts, allowing our members to better secure a reasonable living for themselves and their loved ones.”

Graduate teaching assistants instruct about two-thirds of the classes taught on MSU’s campus, Rowe said last week. The union’s call for MSU to “find some sort of moral backbone” during the recent negotiations attracted the attention of State Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, and Ingham County Commissioner Todd Tennis.

With a living wage in Ingham County resting at about $23,600, the annual $15,400 minimum stipend for teaching assistants was simply insufficient, they argued. The latest contract would edge that figure up to $16,170 later this year and bring baseline minimum stipend up to nearly $19,000 annually for graduate students.

Union spokesman Kevin Bird directly credited the recent student demonstration for the recent compromise.

“This contract signals the university has finally heard our calls for much needed raises to the minimum stipend, improved dependent healthcare coverage, protections for employees, and a slew of issues that will make MSU a more equitable and accessible university for graduate assistants, irrespective of one’s background,” Bird said.

Added an MSU spokeswoman: "We are glad that we have reached a fair settlement and look forward to continuing a productive relationship with the GEU."

Editor's note: This story was updated to include comments from an MSU spokeswoman. 

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