At 5 a.m. on Tuesday morning, members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization at the University of Michigan grabbed their umbrellas and formed picket lines as the official beginning of their strike against the University’s fall reopening plans.
The echoes of their chants, including “If you don’t care, then shut it down. Ann Arbor is a union town” and “Health informed is a lie, you don’t care if people die,” could be heard across central campus as they marched in circles in the rain.
The strike, which has garnered support from a variety of communities on campus, including the Lecturers’ Employee Organization and College Democrats, is scheduled to run until Friday with potential for reauthorization.
More than 1200 graduate and undergraduate students have expressed solidarity in the strike through participating in picket lines, in-person and virtually, for the rest of the week. Construction workers employed on sites where the picket lines are located went home for the day to support the strike.
GEO Secretary Amir Fleischmann said they’re striking because they feel the University’s fall reopening plans fail to keep people on campus safe.
“We’re striking over the University’s totally inadequate reopening plans and just the series of policies they put in place over the summer that’s making students and workers on campus unsafe,” Fleischmann said.
Fleischmann said GEO isn’t just striking for their own benefit, they’re striking to protect everyone on campus and in the University community.
“It’s important because GEO is supporting the safety of everyone on campus. One of the reasons is the University’s totally inadequate testing policy, which doesn’t include randomized testing of asymptomatic people, which all experts, including the University’s own (experts), think is necessary for a safe campus,” Fleischmann said.
LSA freshman Sara Stawarz, who was standing at the picket line near the Central Campus Transit Center, said she is standing in solidarity with GEO.
“I was always taught to never cross a picket line and I am a big supporter of unions, so me and my Spanish classmates, because we don’t have class right now, are joining in the picket line,” Stawarz said.
Stawarz said that while she may not personally understand what graduate students are going through, she supports the union and said the University needs to listen to their concerns.
“It’s quite unfair how (graduate students) have been treated. Especially considering how a lot of them have ongoing situations where they can’t come in and stuff like that where the considerations aren’t being made for them to the extent that they should be,” Stawarz said.
After GEO announced the strike, the University’s Office of Public Affairs released a statement on Twitter condemning the strike and saying it violates state law. The University is preparing to continue all operations, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said in a University Record article.
“The state of Michigan prohibits public employees from striking,” Fitzgerald wrote. “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.”
Fitzgerald also said many of GEO’s demands are not within the bounds of their contract or their status as employees of the University.
“A strike at this time is taking an illegal job action over issues that are not related to their employment and therefore unresolvable through the methods that are available to both the university and GEO under the GEO contract,” Fitzgerald said.
Elliott Brannon, medical school steward of GEO, said GEO understands the potential repercussions of striking under Michigan law, but that the University’s response only further encouraged them to stand their ground.
“(The University) responded pretty quickly by saying that it is illegal and I feel like that makes it seem even more important to us because we know that striking is illegal in this state,” Brannon said. “I don’t personally think it should be illegal for employees to strike in this state, but it is and we’re doing that knowing that it’s illegal because this is how important we think it is.”
Fleischmann said he is not surprised by the University’s response and feels their demands are feasible.
“It’s been disappointing but not totally unexpected,” Fleischmann said. “The University has shown itself to be very hostile to unions. I think that it’s been unfortunate that they’ve been citing entirely unjust laws in their attacks on us…. Some of our demands wouldn’t cost the University a dime to implement and yet they’re still refusing to compromise with us on them and that should be troubling for everybody.”
Fleischmann said he cares about the classes he teaches and his students, and the decision to strike was a difficult one to make. If he didn’t feel it was absolutely necessary, he wouldn’t have done it.
“Going on strike and canceling classes is not an easy decision for any GSI,” Fleischmann said. “I care deeply about my students and the material that I teach. I think that’s true for every member of this union. We really do not take this lightly, but we feel like we really do not have any other choice.”