On the Line

Student workers at the University of Michigan head into the summer without a contract.

At the end of March, graduate student workers at the University of Michigan rejected a 5 percent raise—which, taking inflation into account, effectively would have amounted to a pay cut—and walked out on strike for the second time in three years. The nearly 2,400 workers, represented by the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), American Federation of Teachers Local 3550, are demanding, among other things, a living wage of $38,537 per year, standardized hiring practices, and increased childcare subsidies. The workers are now entering their third month on strike, with graduations having come and gone and a grade strike subsiding, and still without pay, which the university docked. At Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, the strike has surfaced tensions between the college’s mission and its actions.

This is in part due to the strength and longevity of the labor action, which GEO leadership took measures to ensure. Most notably, it adopted an open bargaining model (meaning that all bargaining meetings are open to members of the unit, allowing them to weigh in on contract negotiations and encouraging transparency and open communication between the rank-and-file membership and union leadership). It has also made a concerted effort to engage the rank and file, including an intense outreach program in the lead-up to the strike.

These measures have made a noticeable difference in worker engagement, a PhD student in Michigan’s Department of Classical Studies who goes by the mononym Yeager tells NYRA. “In 2020, when I first got involved in the union, I wasn’t entirely clear on what was being negotiated or that I theoretically had a say in it.” Now, they regularly attend the bargaining sessions. (Yeager notes that one of the benefits of open bargaining is being able to observe human resources personnel during the negotiations and recounts that they once watched an HR representative doze off as the bargaining team explained the need for special protections around trans health care.)

Getting the university to the bargaining table was a challenge in and of itself. Sben Korsh, a fourth-year architecture and planning PhD student, says it took two months and required unprecedented state mediation. Shortly after the strike began, the university filed an injunction with the Washtenaw County Courts, requesting that the strikers be ordered back to work. To get the courts to take its side, the university would have had to prove that the strike was causing students “irreparable harm”; only one student testified against the striking workers, and the injunction was rejected twice within as many weeks.

Defeating the injunction was an undeniable victory for the workers. Korsh, who is one of forty PhD students at Taubman, nonetheless insists that “the law won’t bring us justice. Our strength lies within our collective power as workers.” This became evident two weeks later when a separate court deemed the strike an unfair labor practice. The strike carried on regardless.

More recently, in an effort to refocus on contract negotiations, both sides dropped their pending unfair labor practices complaints with prejudice, meaning they cannot be taken up again, and the university dropped its lawsuit for damages against the union. At Taubman, the striking workers hope their work stoppage will ameliorate issues of equity that they believe have been insufficiently addressed by their college.

While in recent years there has been increased pressure on the architecture discipline to expand its reach and diversify its ranks, Taubman College’s administration seems to be embracing austerity and, consequently, narrowing its mission to those who are privileged enough to afford it, effectively reproducing an architectural community of wealthy white students while burning out less privileged students, who are often working-class, immigrants, and/or people of color.

Taubman College has tied its public image in part to that of its dean, Jonathan Massey, who earned a reputation as a social justice–oriented leader in architectural education after the Black Lives Matter uprisings in 2015. Assuming the position in 2017, Massey was quick to tout his antiracist bona fides. “I remember his job talk, and there was ‘Black Lives Matter’ everywhere,” seventh-year architecture and planning PhD student Rebecca Smith tells NYRA. Smith insists that GEO’s platform—which, among other things, calls for the university to help fund the Coalition for Re-envisioning Our Safety (CROS), a community-led emergency-response program—“addresses precisely the conditions of police violence that BLM was formed in protest against.”

A living wage, better childcare, and stronger protections for international students within Taubman will be key to helping architecture students maintain their commitment to the discipline.

In contrast, Massey’s administration has focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) measures like a college compact—a document detailing the inclusive culture Taubman seeks to establish—and a phonetic name initiative to teach people how to pronounce each other’s names. These gestures shirk the actual material concerns that Taubman students are striking over and don’t effectively address issues of diversity within the college (which has not produced a Black PhD in architecture for at least two decades).

Taubman PhD students, who typically receive one or two years less funding than their peers in other departments, struggle to pay rent, are unable to afford childcare, and sometimes rely on local food pantries for groceries. (Meanwhile, according to public University of Michigan records, Massey received a raise of nearly $39,000 this year, more than GEO’s entire living wage demand. NYRA’s request for comment to Massey was responded to by Taubman College’s director of marketing and communications, Kent Love-Ramirez, who said that “Taubman College is not a party to negotiations between GEO and the university.”)

At the beginning of June, Taubman students presented the administration with a letter signed by a supermajority of architecture and planning PhDs, demanding a meeting to address concerns specific to the college and outside of the contract. But when the two sides met over Zoom, Massey abruptly left the meeting after the union vice president and a staffer joined, saying, “This isn’t the meeting we agreed to.” Despite Massey’s premature exit, the meeting continued. Workers highlighted their lack of funding for a fifth year and during summers. They say the faculty, including the chairs and directors of both the architecture and planning programs, support their demands.

Foreign labor is also a point of contention. Approximately half of the PhDs within the department are international students, many of whom enrolled at Michigan to pursue a degree at a top research university but instead found precarity. Given the strict conditions of visas, international students have a hard cap of twenty-hour workweeks and are not allowed to work off campus. Furthermore, since Taubman PhDs don’t receive summer funding, unlike most other PhDs at the university, these students have to rely on savings or alternative sources of funding to support themselves. This means that while many prospective students consider Taubman attractive because of its relative affordability, especially when compared with some of its private school counterparts, in practice it can be just as expensive.

In what workers are calling an intimidation tactic, the university has been informing GEO members that their grade strike could put international undergraduate students’ visas in jeopardy, which Korsh says is misleading. Smith helped organize a picket in response. Outside of the Art & Architecture building, chants of “India, China, Singapore, Greece! Help us pay our visa fees!” could be heard.

One M.Arch student (who wishes to remain anonymous) says that upon acceptance, prospective M.Arch students are “essentially guaranteed … to have a graduate student instructor position,” meaning an additional source of income. But after arriving, she, like many of her colleagues, discovered that “the actual process and number of positions available is opaque and less than what should be available.”

At Taubman, graduate student workers are heavily relied upon to instruct, grade, and ultimately sustain the study of architecture. Because they are expected to do all of this while being overworked and underpaid, the profession risks sabotaging itself—workers might not be able to perform optimally under subpar conditions. So far, that risk has not proved threatening enough for the university to prioritize the well-being of its workers over its profit margins.

Higher education’s squeeze on its workers has serious impacts on the quality of education of its students and, consequently, on the caliber of architect those students become. Student workers at Taubman feel this pressure acutely as they labor within a highly specialized sector, wherein they are often expected to reproduce the fetishization of architecture as a “professional” discipline. The strike, and the collective action it entails, runs counter to this ethos and to the age-old architectural practice of elevating individual geniuses who produce exceptional final products and thereby obscuring the collective and tedious work of hundreds of lesser-known architects, done without the notoriety and generous compensation.

While in recent years there has been increased pressure on the architecture discipline to expand its reach and diversify its ranks, Taubman College’s administration seems to be embracing austerity and, consequently, narrowing its mission to those who are privileged enough to afford it.

The strike at Taubman is part of a broader sea change within architecture. While an attempt to unionize SHoP last year failed, last fall Bernheimer Architecture became the first unionized private architecture firm in the country. According to Architecture Workers United organizer , right now “architects have the opportunity to craft things from scratch, which is scary, but it also presents them with an amazing opportunity to shape what we want our unions to be.” For architecture students at Taubman, witnessing their instructors go on strike, dance on the picket line, and engage in open bargaining will undoubtedly be a part of this broader shift in consciousness.

On May 31, GEO membership overwhelmingly voted down the university’s most recent “comprehensive offer,” which an HR rep from Michigan conceded “contains no new proposals and does not drastically deviate from the proposals that we have been passing back and forth for the last eight months.” The strike will likely continue through the summer and into the fall. “They can’t continue to rely on faculty to submit incomplete or falsified grades,” GEO communications committee member Amir Fleischmann told NYRA. “If the strike continues in the fall semester, the university cannot sustain instruction as usual. It hurts their credibility as an academic institution.” Fleischmann says the union has filed complaints with the Michigan Higher Education Commission.

Korsh tells NYRA that GEO is confident its demands will be won. A living wage, better childcare, and stronger protections for international students within Taubman will be key to helping architecture students maintain their commitment to the discipline. Once this fight is over, it will take years of continued effort to ensure any gains won in this contract will not be eroded in the next—and, crucially, to ensure that those wins can be built upon to actually resolve the issues that diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives have fallen short of addressing.

Peter Lucas is a writer in New York City covering labor, politics, and, as of this piece, how they intersect with architecture education.