Graduate Employees at University of Michigan Strike over COVID, Police

Early-morning picketers visited the university's Detroit Center today. Photo: GEO

UPDATE, September 18: GEO membership voted to accept the University of Michigan’s second offer on September 16 and end the nine-day strike. At the union’s largest membership meeting yet, 78 percent of nearly 1,400 members in attendance voted in favor of the agreement. According to a GEO press release, the union won “workable pandemic childcare options; substantive support for international graduate students; transparent COVID-19 testing protocols; and incremental but real movement on our policing demands.”

UPDATE September 15: Yesterday the University sought a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to bring an immediate end to the strike. In response GEO redoubled its efforts today, calling for pickets beginning at 5am "to shut down University operations [at] sites important to the administrators."

Grad student workers at the University of Michigan have been on strike since September 8 over the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and policing on campus.

The Graduate Employees’ Organization has 2,000 members on U of M’s three campuses. They voted by 79 percent on September 6 to strike for four days, September 8-11. (Fall classes resumed August 31.)

But management’s non-response goaded members to re-authorize the strike on September 9 for an additional week, this time by 80 percent. The online strike meeting of 1,100 members was the largest GEO has ever held.

The strikers have been holding in-person and virtual marches, meetings, pickets, rallies, and teach-ins across the campus system.

Asked on a Detroit picket line why U of M would tell students to return to campus in order to take classes online, GEO member Joel Batterman said, “One of the most influential members of the Board of Regents, Ron Weiser, a top Republican donor and donor to U of M, is the CEO of McKinley, one of the largest apartment rental companies in Ann Arbor.”

GEO’S DEMANDS

The Graduate Employees are demanding increased testing and contact tracing, giving all graduate students the right to work remotely, childcare subsidies, elimination of extra fees for international students, and emergency grants, rent freezes, and flexible leasing arrangements for campus housing.

Amel Omari, a PhD student in public health, said it’s been hard even to find out what the administration’s plan is. “We’re asking for a robust testing plan,” Omari said. “The university is not keeping up with testing. They’ve tested under 2,000 on campus in the past two weeks; Cornell tested over 20,000 in one week, Harvard under 10,000. No place I checked was as low as us. We want transparency; we want to understand their strategy. Other universities have models that guide their plans.”

In addition, GEO wants a disarmed and demilitarized workplace, a standard for use of force on campus, 50 percent defunding of campus police and reallocation of that money to community initiatives, and for the university to sever all formal ties with local police and ICE.

THE UNIVERSITY’S RESPONSE

Spokespersons and lawyers representing U of M have responded that the strike is illegal—that it violates the union’s recent contract settled in April, which prohibits work stoppages, and Michigan state law, which prohibits strikes by public employees—and that the policing demands are beyond the scope of GEO’s bargaining rights.

On the strike’s first day, the university filed an unfair labor charge with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, seeking a cease-and-desist order for the unlawful work stoppage. The state agency has yet to issue a decision.

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Members of the Graduate Employees do not dispute the illegality of their strike, but say they felt no choice, as the university had failed to consider their demands over the summer. GEO members also contend that their policing demands have a direct link to the university’s COVID-19 response.

As part of its planned enforcement policy against large social gatherings, the university originally intended to have armed police officers work with teams of students to enforce social distancing on campus. After pushback, the university has pledged that no armed officers will accompany the student teams enforcing social distancing.

At their September 9 meeting, members heard administrators’ proposed deal. It did not specifically address any of GEO’s demands around COVID-19 and addressed none of the policing demands. It did include an offer of no retaliation if the deal was accepted. The deal was rejected by a majority despite the recommendation of the union president.

CAMPUS SUPPORT

Before the strike began, U of M faculty were considering a vote of no confidence in the administration’s pandemic response. Their vote is scheduled for September 16.

Faculty have published an open letter in support of the strike’s demands, with some faculty joining GEO members in canceling some or all of their classes. The open letter now has signatures from more than 630 faculty members.

Central Student Government backed GEO in a unanimous vote and urged students not to attend classes.

On September 9 Resident Advisors (non-union student workers who operate the dorms) launched their own strike in protest of the university’s pandemic response, demanding regular scheduled testing for all staff, increased access to personal protective equipment, hazard pay, and involvement in creating university policies that they’re responsible for enforcing. You can read their full demands here.

Support from other unions on campus has been mixed. The Lecturers’ Employee Organization (non-tenure-track faculty) has been supportive on social media but so far hasn’t asked members to strike. Leaders of the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council have told members not to publicly support the strike because of a “non-interference” clause in their contract. Some but not all members of the building trades refused to cross the picket line to work on construction projects during the first week.

You can support GEO by making a solidarity dues contribution, by volunteering, or by spreading the word on social media.

You can keep up with the strike at the GEO website and social media or at The Michigan Daily, U of M’s independent student-run newspaper.

Michael Merriweather is the office manager at Teamsters for a Democratic Union. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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