Wildcat strike. When I first heard this term, it seemed something feral, yet unavoidable, similar to when you mistreat an animal for long enough and it finally decides to bite back. As a ResStaff member in West Quad, I would say that this is an accurate portrayal of my own feelings about choosing to strike. It feels as if I have been knocked down, ignored and belittled enough times that finally I have reached my breaking point. And so, at 9 a.m. this past Wednesday, along with the majority of ResStaff members, I decided to start striking. I will not speak for all of ResStaff, but I will share the personal occurrences that have driven me to risk my housing and food security. This week has been a thrown-into-the-deep-end way of being introduced to labor unions. I was not raised in a family that instilled the importance of not crossing the picket line. While my grandfathers were an auto-worker and a factory worker, and my grandmothers were a seamstress and a homemaker, I have received little to no education on labor unions up until this point. My mother is a University administrator at another institution, so when I heard of unions it was often laced with traces of frustration. Now, as a laborer participating in a strike myself, it feels like a comical turning of tables.
While walking picket lines and refusing to show up to work shifts this past week, I often pondered about legendary Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs and how she was first introduced to activism through labor unions and poor housing conditions. In an NPR piece about her life, she describes her introduction to activism: “she was forced to find free housing in a rat-filled basement… One day, as Boggs was walking through her neighborhood, she came across a group of people protesting poor living conditions — which included rat-infested housing.” To think, only five years after her death in a city she knew and loved, student workers are striking over similar conditions. No demand for safe, comfortable living conditions is too great, whether it be due to pests or a pandemic — or both in the case of the Northwood Apartments where students are being quarantined. It is soothing to know that I walk in the steps of an outstanding Asian American woman activist, but it’s heartbreaking that I must fight the same struggles.
To mention Grace Lee Boggs without also recognizing the intersectionality of safe housing and race would be a slight. Grace (and I use her first name because I feel that she would embrace the rejection of typical status signifiers and would also stand with the more radical ways of teaching from activist authors like Paulo Friere) actively fought against the oppressive and racist systems of housing in our society for both Asian and Black Americans. There is an inextricable link between the location of communities of color and poor living conditions in intentionally underfunded neighborhoods. Communities of color have been historically displaced, segregated and denied access to equal wealth-building opportunities and home ownership. This has been carried out through redlining (which was particularly directed at Black communities) as well as other blatantly discriminatory housing guidelines that denied people of color a chance at upward mobility.
While I would never say that the University of Michigan is underfunded, I would say that it uses some of the same predatory practices on students with marginalized identities that housing authorities have utilized. Michigan Housing’s hiring process often targets ResStaff who would not have another option when it comes to paying for room and board. Many are dependent upon financial aid, and would be risking housing and food security if they stepped out of line in their positions. It is this fear mongering that has prevented ResStaff from striking for so long. However, many were catalyzed into acting because the difference between striking and not striking was literally life and death. In my experience, striking was less a choice and more a duty as a leader to residents in my community and a colleague to my fellow ResStaff members. It was essential that I use my voice to advocate for others. However, this is a terrifyingly vulnerable place to be. It has been a privilege that I have never felt the same housing insecurity that I am feeling now. The constant paralyzing ache of awaiting an email telling me to remove myself from Housing premises immediately is all-consuming. In such a situation, I lean on the community around me, but this comes with mounting challenges as I balance trying to protect those I care about. Over the past few weeks I have told friends I was radioactive — too often exposed to spaces where students are blatantly irresponsible and potentially contributing to the spread of COVID-19. I didn’t want to return home to visit my father for his 68th birthday because I didn’t want to expose him to everything I could be carrying. I have dodged repeated phone calls from my mother because I can’t lie to her again and tell her that I’m alright while holding back tears. This is nothing in comparison to ResStaff members who are risking homelessness in the case that the University decides to fire us en masse for making our voices heard. I can return to my hometown if no other housing is available, but not all of ResStaff can say the same. This is why I strike. For the marginalized folks in my community who are being taken advantage of by University Housing practices that echo the discriminatory rules of another era. I strike for future student workers who do not yet know how to raise their voices and I strike for myself, to give myself an opportunity to demand more. Throughout her work, Grace Lee Boggs always mentions that revolution and activist action comes from a place of deep love. A love for people and the places they live and work. Funnily enough, the place where I work is also the place I live and like Grace says, I have an enormous amount of love for it. For this reason, I strike.