Chants from picket lines echo from campus building to campus building. But step off campus — where most students are tuning into remote classes — and that echo quickly fades.
Graduate students at the University of Michigan are on strike, demanding more stringent COVID-19 precautions in the fall semester reopening plan and reforms in policing on campus. Many of those striking are Graduate Student Instructors who lead and assist with undergraduate classes.
The Graduate Employees’ Organization, the union representing graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants, has asked undergraduate students to observe the picket line in solidarity with the strike, meaning they should not attend class. Central Student Government also encouraged students not to cross the picket line in a resolution passed Tuesday night.
When LSA sophomore Lindsay Adams heard this call-to-action, skipping class was a no brainer.
“I’m fortunate enough that I’m in a position where I can do that without sabotaging myself,” she said. “I think this is a really, really important cause so I’m planning on standing behind the strike members.”
Some students who aren’t strongly opinionated about the strike, such as LSA sophomore Lorenzo Luna, were left to decide whether or not to stand in solidarity with the GSIs by skipping classes.
“I feel like I don’t really have a place in (the strike), because I myself am not a GSI,” Luna said. “Me skipping class won’t really do much to give the GSIs more leverage in their negotiations.”
Engineering senior Hannah Lowenthal said she’d be willing to skip class, but only if her classes’ GSIs ask her to do so.
“If my GSI expressed to me that, ‘I am part of this movement and I don’t feel comfortable attending classes,’ I would be totally supportive of that,” Lowenthal said. “I would go with whatever he wants.”
Students who have decided to join the strike must navigate a question few have faced before: Where does the picket line stop when classes are taught online?
LSA sophomore Renee Boudreau said it would be harder for students to ignore the strike if classes were in-person.
“The lines are really blurred with everything being online,” she said. “If you were to be going into class, you wouldn’t want to cross the picket line.”
LSA junior Alyssa Thomas is an active supporter of the GEO. She attended the union’s die-in protest of the University’s fall reopening protocols, boycotted her synchronous classes this week in solidarity with the strike and expressed support for Residential Staff — of which she is a member —voting to strike alongside GEO as well.
Thomas said attending asynchronous lectures and completing assigned class material does not take away from the strike.
“Because I don’t have an attendance responsibility, it would be pointless for me to not go to those asynchronous lectures,” she said. “If we are to get a University response by the end of the week, I would still be responsible for obtaining all the information. It’s basically a matter of ‘do I want to do it now, or do I want to do it later?’”
LSA junior Andie Gardiner decided to do her asynchronous classes and homework outside of the GEO’s official picket hours.
“Even if it’s asynchronous and the lectures are pre-recorded, I would like to just show my support by doing that outside of when the strike line is visible,” Gardiner said.
Lowenthal said she’d be more likely to boycott if her classes weren’t online.
“There is some discomfort walking solo past a big crowd of people protesting for something,” she said. “At that point, I probably wouldn’t go to class.”
GEO Secretary Amir Fleishman said undergraduate support is a vital component of this strike’s success. He said undergraduates have attended picketing events and spoken at GEO events.
“Undergraduate support is so, so important for us because we’re out there for everybody,” Fleishman said. “Inadequate testing impacts undergrads too. It impacts the entire community far beyond this campus. So we really love to see undergrads come out in support of us.”
Some students who said they were initially unaware of the significance of crossing a picket line eventually decided to skip classes in solidarity.
Boudreau attended classes on the first day of the strike. It wasn’t until Tuesday evening that she decided to boycott her classes for the remainder of the week.
“I think it was questioning my privilege,” Boudreau said. “I kind of just had to consider that my performance in class is very, very much less important than other people’s safety in their lives as they interact with people on campus.”
For other students, boycotting class was never in the question.
Business junior Mason Hinawi, who said he is opposed to the strike, felt that skipping class would be unproductive and detrimental to students’ education.
“I don’t think it’s productive to skip classes,” Hinawi said. “I think we’re here to learn, and I’m here to get my money’s worth in education and I want to attend my classes in every way possible … I don’t want to cause any undue harm to anyone’s education.”
LSA sophomore Jacob Small was outraged when he received an email from a GSI canceling his Economics 102 discussion section. Small said he supports some of the issues the GEO is calling for and agrees that the University hasn’t done enough to keep them safe, but the strike affecting his academics crosses the line.
“When teachers strike, students are not learning,” he said. “I don’t feel like the GSIs have that right to make those demands that are kind of extreme at the expense of my education and my tuition.”
While Small isn’t partaking in the strike, he said University President Mark Schlissel should meet with the GEO to address some of their concerns in order to resume classes.
“Every minute there’s not a conversation, I’m losing time as a student on this campus,” he said. “That pisses me off.”
As an Engineering graduate student, Garrett Sculthorpe knows several people who applied to GSI positions and didn’t get them. Sculthorpe said he’s concerned that graduate students who did get these positions are canceling classes.
“GSI positions are competitive, a lot of graduate students apply for them,” Sculthorpe said. “There are people out there who would’ve taken those positions and worked them, and taken the compensation that comes as a result, as well as experience without turning around and canceling classes.”
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald told The Daily there is no official policy for how professors choose to handle students joining the strike. Fitzgerald said issues such as these are typically decided at the discretion of each professor on campus.
“This gets into the territory of faculty members and how they operate their classes,” Fitzgerald said. “The university gives the faculty members great latitude for what their expectations are for their classes and we don’t really dictate many things. Particularly in this situation, where it’s rather difficult to get a good handle on how many GSIs aren’t participating, everybody has to make a personal decision.”
Daily Staff Reporter Isobel Grant contributed reporting.
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