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Provost Susan M. Collins responded to the Graduate Employees’ Organization’s four-day strike in an email addressed to all undergraduate students at the University of Michigan on Wednesday.
Collins wrote the University views the purpose of the GEO strike, which began yesterday, as based on “a number of issues,” many of them independent of the employment status of graduate students as Graduate Student Instructors. GEO is unable to negotiate with the University on issues unrelated to their employment, Collins wrote.
Collins also wrote the issues GEO is striking about — which include asking for more COVID-19 protections, additional support for international students and for the University to cut 50% from the Division of Public Safety and Security’s annual budget — may be “of significant interest” to graduate as well as undergraduate students. She wrote she believes student activism and student perspectives are important components of the University.
“The University has a long and celebrated history of its community members standing up for what they believe in through acts of freedom of speech and peaceful protest,” Collins wrote in the email. “The strike violates Michigan law; in addition, GEO has agreed by contract not to take actions that interfere with the University’s operations, in this case, your education. Nonetheless, the University’s team will continue to meet with GEO in good faith to resolve remaining issues.”
Lucy Peterson, GEO rank and file member, responded to Collins's email by stating that it reaffirms their demands and reminds them of their devotion to the community at large.
“Although the University has said time and again that their top priority is to have a community that cares, they’re not taking the necessary steps to make that possible … They’re shifting the blame on us, when we are actually trying to take responsibility for our entire community, which is in fact their responsibility,” Peterson said.
Across campus, deans of various schools have pushed to continue classes despite the GEO strike. Some have asked faculty members to step in for GSIs who stop teaching during the strike, create self-study assignments or combine section meetings together to make up for canceled sections.
Additionally, Collins wrote the strike and its consequences on classes might feel “disruptive, confusing and worrisome” to students, but that the University is focusing on minimizing the impact of the strike on their academic experience.
“I want to acknowledge the extra strain on your start to classes, especially coming at a time that is already incredibly challenging as you navigate the college experience during a global pandemic,” Collins wrote. “Providing a high-quality educational experience in a safe environment for each of our students remains our top priority.”
Protesters plan to continue for the remainder of the week, as previously authorized by the GEO union, but are prepared to strike for as long as their needs remain unmet, Peterson said.
“We can continue it if need be,” Peterson said. “We’re hoping that we can come to an agreement before then but we can absolutely keep going if they won't make movement on our demands, and so far they have not made any movement.”
On Tuesday evening, residential advisors also voted to strike, asking the University for increased COVID-19 protections and hazard pay for student University Housing employees. Their strike began Wednesday morning.
Peterson acknowledged the R.A.’s demands and their vote to strike, saying that their demands are connected to GEO’s.
“GEO is one of the best organized unions on campus and we really feel that it is our duty to stand up for other workers who aren't as organized,” Peterson said. “That includes staff, that includes faculty, that includes students and we stand strongly with the resident advisors who have also called the strike. And we intend to work with them.”
Jane Furey, a GEO steward as well as a graduate student, expressed her discontent with Collins’ statement. She discussed the ways in which she sees the GEO demands being closely intertwined with their contract with the University.
“I think our contract is about a safe workplace,” Furey said. “The University is putting our lives in danger with this reckless COVID plan and the increased surveillance, which especially puts Black students at risk. So it is part of our contract because it's part of public safety and justice and our livelihoods.”