Members of the graduate student employee union at the University of Michigan have voted to approve a strike in response to the school’s COVID-19 re-opening plan. According to the Graduate Employees’ Organization, or GEO, 79% of its membership voted to approve the work stoppage. The strike will begin Tuesday, September 8, and will include physically-distanced picket lines as well as remote actions to spread awareness about the work stoppage and what it means.
GEO’s list of demands includes transparency from the university in regard to its testing and contact tracing plans, as well as models of the spread of COVID-19 that were used to inform the creation of the re-opening plan. It also asks for the universal right to work remotely for graduate student employees, as well as a rent freeze and housing protections. There is also a list of demands in regard to policing, particularly calling for the creation of a "demilitarized workplace," cutting funding for U of M’s Division of Public Safety and Security, and cutting ties with the Ann Arbor Police Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Jeff Lockhart is a PhD candidate in the sociology department and a member of the GEO. He says the university’s lack of transparency affects not only graduate student employees, but the entire university community.
“Their whole line is, ‘undergrads have a choice whether to come back or not, and they need to make responsible choices while they’re here, or else we’ll have to shut down!’ It’s all about undergrad choice, but the thing is, how can any student or faculty member or staff member make good, informed choices if they don’t have the information necessary to make those choices?” he says.
Yael Kenan is a graduate student in the comparative literature department and is also a member of the GEO. She says the GEO has been in contact with its members for months.
“People are fed up, is what they are, and they’re scared, honestly, probably more than anything else. They’re scared! They’re scared for themselves, they’re scared for their students, for the community, and they feel like the university has made them promises and has not kept those promises,” says Kenan.
The work stoppage, which will take effect at 12 a.m. on Tuesday, will continue until Friday. The union could then vote to renew the work stoppage, or U of M could make the GEO an offer that it could agree to.
Lockhart says that U of M has repeatedly ignored or blocked attempts at bargaining with the GEO over the past few months, and he’s not optimistic that the school’s first offer will be adequate.
“We don’t enjoy striking, we don’t enjoy not doing the work that we willfully chose to do, it’s not like people do a pHD because they hate the work! We enjoy our careers, we want to be here, we don’t want to spend thousands of hours planning and executing strikes, which is volunteer work on top of our full-time work as students and employees. I’m not optimistic that their first offer is going to be good enough for membership to end the strike,” he says.
Kenan agrees with Lockhart’s assessment, but says that makes the work stoppage all the more necessary.
“I think that pressure can work. It’s been shown time and time again that it can. It’s weird and hard to organize right now, it’s weird and hard to bargain right now: it’s also never been more important. It’s literally life or death," says Kenan. "And so yes, it’s hard, and yes, a lot of these structures are not in place: make them, create them. If the systems aren’t there to keep us safe, let’s build them! It’s not an acceptable answer to say, ‘we don’t know how to do this.’"
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald provided the following statement:
The state of Michigan prohibits public employees from striking. GEO’s contract with U-M also prohibits the union and GSIs and GSSAs from taking part in any action against or interference with the operations of the university, such as failing to report for duty or the failure to perform their employment duties.
A strike by GEO violates the GEO contract and violates state law.
Separately, GEO has raised a number of issues that cannot be resolved as a matter of their contract or through a collective bargaining procedure.
The university is preparing to continue operations, including classes, in the event of a strike.
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