Graduate students at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College are on strike for better pay

Labored Relations

Graduate students at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College are on strike for better pay

An addition to the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at University of Michigan designed by Preston Scott Cohen (Peter Smith)

On March 29, over 2,000 graduate student workers at the University of Michigan went on strike, including a supermajority of graduate student instructors at the school’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Since their contract expired on May 1, graduate students have been holding teach-ins and pickets and meeting with administrators. They are demanding a $38,000 annual wage (the minimum annual full-time, pre-tax income for a living wage, per the MIT Living Wage Calculator); implementation of unarmed, non-police emergency responders; and increased healthcare benefits.

The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), a labor union affiliated with the AFL-CIO, was formed in 1974 following the first attempts at labor organizing on Michigan’s campus in 1970 to fight for student worker pay increases, oppose budget cuts, and demand in-state tuition status for all graduate student workers. Its current demands reflect the often precarious position of graduate students in the United States as well as what it believes are particularly unfair labor practices at the University of Michigan. GEO’s central argument is that they believe the existing contract’s pay increases have not kept up with the cost of living.

In November 2022, GEO began the bargaining process with the university, but little progress was made. An early point of contention was meeting logistics, including the room size where negotiations would take place and whether the sessions would be open or closed. The university said that union leaders requested a room that could host as many as 160 in-person attendees, rather than a typical room which can accommodate 50 or fewer people, and added that smaller sessions were used for prior GEO contract negotiations. (Previous contract negotiations were conducted using open bargaining.) The effort continued to make little progress, and after students went on strike, the university requested a judge to issue a temporary restraining order against its workers, arguing that prior to the expiration of their contract they were in breach of the document’s no-strike clause. A Washtenaw County Circuit Court judge denied the request on April 4. Then, in a separate ruling issued on April 17, a state judge declared that the strike constituted an unfair labor practice; this ruling served as a non-binding recommendation to the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC). MERC does not hold enforcement power, and now that the contract has expired, the no-strike clause is no longer in effect.

Impacts for Architecture Students

At the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, graduate students primarily hold teaching and research positions. Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) positions, in which students teach, grade, and hold lab or discussion sections, compensate graduate students with tuition waivers of up to $12,947 per semester for in-state students and $26,062 for out-of-state students, in addition to a salary of $24,050 for two semesters of work. Numerous students at Taubman told AN that these rates are insufficient and that many students work additional off-campus jobs to make ends meet. The University of Michigan stated that in addition to tuition waivers and a salary, GSIs also receive “receive comprehensive health insurance with no monthly premiums and per-semester childcare subsidies that start at $3,043 for one child.”

Some faculty members, many of whom are not employed in tenure track positions, offered their support, including through the circulation of an open letter authored by less than 20 percent of instructors. An additional open letter of support has been signed by over 300 people, including Mabel O. Wilson, Peggy Deamer, and Alexandra Lange.

Teaching positions are one means of support for students pursuing Master of Architecture (MArch), Master of Urban and Regional Planning, Master of Urban Design, Master of Science in Architecture Design and Research degrees, as well as for doctoral candidates. Limited access to these roles at Taubman is problematic: Application decisions can be released last minute, leaving students with few alternatives to offset tuition costs, and it is not uncommon for positions to give preference to doctoral candidates. “You don’t know whether you’re going to have to take out a $30,000 loan to go to school with a week’s notice,” Ivan Gort-Cabeza de Vaca, who recently earned his MArch at the University of Michigan, told AN. Taubman is not the only architecture school that advertises instructorships this way.

PhD candidates at Taubman also claim that they are at a disadvantage compared to other schools within the university: They are only offered four years of PhD funding, as opposed to five or six by other schools, a figure that is less than many other architecture schools in the U.S. “The pay that PhDs receive for teaching is the pay that we live on throughout the year,” said Sben Korsh, PhD candidate in architecture at Taubman and research coordinator of The Architecture Lobby. “The university pays us the money not just for our teaching, but also for the research and service work we do. We put in 40 to 60 hours a week.”

In a statement, Jonathan Massey, dean of Taubman, shared with AN that “changing the contents and cultures of practice and education” to work toward a more equitable field “takes time.” In practice, Massey argues, this includes the “aim to expand access to architecture and planning education and increase compensation and support for everyone who works at the college, including graduate student instructors as well as lecturers, tenure- and practice-track faculty, and staff.” Massey noted that graduate teaching positions “require 10-to-20 hours of work per week,” and that “we have arranged summer funding for all of our doctoral students, regardless of whether they are striking or not.”

PhD students at Taubman told AN that they had not received summer funding. A day after the strike vote, Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School, the umbrella for most of the university’s graduate programs including Taubman’s PhD programs, announced $12,000 in additional summer funding above the $24,000 baseline for many doctoral students—a long standing request among doctoral students. Rebecca Smith, a PhD candidate in architecture at Taubman College, told AN that the funding “was rolled out [not ]in response to the strike demand of a living wage, but as a way to keep a huge chunk of compensation out of the contract and out of the control of the union. This divides us, because they’re only giving it to certain categories of workers. It’s a classic union-busting move.” Smith said that Taubman had not issued supplementary funding, while students in many humanities departments, who already had stronger funding packages, received additional summer funding. Many departments had offered funding in addition to the baseline for the academic year both prior and in response to the strike, though disparities between departments were a continual source of inequity for PhD students.

In Search of Faculty Support

Andrew Herscher, a professor of architecture at Taubman who has withheld grades alongside other faculty members in support of the strike, told AN that he and other faculty have struggled with competing claims about how the tactic is affecting students, such as its effect on their visas and financial aid, as the university has said that filing grades “on time is critically important to students’ ability to access financial aid and loans, participate in varsity athletics, maintain student visa status, apply for jobs and graduate schools, and more.” Some graduate students also expressed the concern that fellow students’ visas or financial aid awards might be threatened based on their participation in the strike. The university told AN that this worry has “no merit” as it “certainly would not threaten someone’s academic career.”

Student workers withholding labor were asked to attest whether or not they were working, and if they replied no or did not respond, their pay was deducted. Korsh told AN that the university had also asked faculty to report graduate workers who were withholding labor. Herscher described the pressure that the university had put on faculty members during the strike, including potential plans to hire “substitute faculty” to grade courses, as an infringement on their academic freedom.

Herscher questioned how faculty members could be expected to respond given the university’s lawsuit requesting a court injunction and an incident in which a campus police officer, trying to make space for the university president’s car at an off-campus restaurant, shoved a graduate student protester to the ground. “What does it mean to tell the people at the bottom of the power structure to maintain collegial relations within the community when the power structure itself is flagrantly and consistently undermining those relations?” he said. In his statement to AN, Massey argued for the value of the school’s pedagogical work, including teaching more equitable forms of practice.

Taubman’s Role Within the University of Michigan

The university’s response to the strike has largely characterized issues of compensation in terms of hourly wages, yet doctoral students’ work is not paid hourly and is limited to an eight-month academic year. “I was shocked by how little pay and institutional support the PhDs receive in comparison to the healthy finances of the college,” Korsch said. “Most of us are—or will at some time be—insecure in our housing, food, and transportation.” In a statement to AN, the university said that it is currently paying a fair wage and that GEO must be willing to move on its bargaining positions in order to come to an agreement.

Graduate students and faculty members told AN that Michigan’s pushback against graduate students has been particularly harsh when compared to strikes at Rutgers University and the Rhode Island School of Design. They said that administrators should focus on governing the universities for the public good; this could mean attempting to provide free education and fighting for debt cancelation rather than focusing on minimizing labor costs and raising money for research and endowments that fund ventures that expand the current scope of the school rather than serving existing students’ needs.

Amid this, students and faculty members told AN they were left with little guidance from Taubman administrators. Dean Massey clarified the college’s position to AN and wrote that “Taubman College is not a party to negotiations between GEO and the university. We do not control university actions relating to compensation during the strike or, in general, university-wide working conditions. Nor do we retaliate or take adverse employment actions in response to legally protected activity on the part of anyone in our college.” Nonetheless, graduate workers say gaps in summer funding and a lack of communication have left many of them frustrated.

What Does This Mean for Architectural Labor?

It is not lost on members of the Taubman community that this incident arrives after successful graduate student strikes and unionization efforts, including the successful unionization of Bernheimer Architecture last year and the filing of a petition to unionize at Snøhetta earlier this month. Questions of architectural labor have been circulating at Taubman for years, largely through informal discussion. While architecture students had been active in GEO, both students and faculty say discussion of exploitative labor practices at the school and within the profession were limited. The strike ended this status quo.

“Students and faculty want so much to see themselves not as workers but as a managerial class,” Korsch said, emphasizing Taubman’s position as a professional school. However, by the time the strike began, most students within Taubman offered their support. Gort-Cabeza de Vaca said the strike had also received support from many of the college’s undergraduate students.

Faculty members at both Taubman and in other colleges have begun to discuss ways in which they can support striking student workers beyond withholding grades. Herscher told AN that “one of the strike’s most consequential outcomes to the faculty is that it has furthered organization around the formation of a union.” Faculty members at the University of Michigan are not currently unionized, and while faculty unions, particularly those that include tenure track faculty, are not common in the U.S., faculty members at other large public universities like Rutgers are unionized. (Faculty at Michigan have protected unionization rights as public employees, but this ability is limited at private universities following the 1979 Supreme Court case NLRB v. Yeshiva University, which ruled that professors are supervisors and managerial employees not legally entitled to collective bargaining rights.) “The strike really heightened our awareness of our status as laborers in the university,” Herscher said.

Lecturers at the University of Michigan have been unionized through the Lecturers’ Employees Union since 2004. They were joined by other non-tenured faculty workers—galleries, librarians, archivists, and museums, or GLAM—to form LEO-GLAM in 2021, though the two groups negotiate different contracts. At Taubman, over 40 lecturers are LEO members. The union will begin bargaining for a new contract this fall, and past bargaining sessions have been open.

“We respect and appreciate how [the faculty have] stepped up to support the strike,” Smith said, “not just for us, but for the larger political ideals the strike represents and its implications for the university and what is possible here.”

At stake, in part, is how architects, having long imagined themselves as creative professionals rather than as workers, understand their class position. Professional architectural education often encourages students to identify as (and with) business owners rather than as laborers whose efforts create value for others. “This strike invites [architectural educators]… to reflect on our ideological allegiances, our labor, and the relation or non-relationship between them. In other words, to ask ourselves, ‘whose interests are we serving through our work at the university?” Herscher said.

As the cost of higher education rises, students often work outside jobs on or off campus to reduce reliance on loans, allowing them less time to focus on coursework and the classroom. The cycle often continues after graduation for architects in both professional roles and academia: Advocates argue that pay rates for architects are far too low compared to the out-of-pocket costs of architectural degrees and that too many faculty members teach for years on end without job security.

Massey told AN that “architectural labor, in general, is not rewarded at the level we believe it deserves. With allies in practice and education, many of us at Taubman College are working to change this.”

 “We are piloting new approaches to teaching and learning,” he continued, “such as online courses, shorter degrees, and flexible course sequences, with the aim of helping students develop their capacities faster and at a lower cost or to help them parent, work, provide care, and pace their learning.”

Striking students told AN that while they are optimistic, they believe the strike will continue into the fall semester. Korsh called on the architecture faculty to push administrators to offer them a deal that meets the needs of graduate workers and their community: “Those with power and social capital should be demanding that our very reasonable needs are met at the table.”

The prior version of this article was updated to include clarifications about room sizing for bargaining sessions, compensation for GSI positions, worry about the strike affecting the legal or financial status of students, and mention of the lecturers’ union. Additionally, the living wage of $38,000 sourced from the MIT Living Wage Calculator is for full-time employment; according to the university, GSIs typically work 20 hours per week.