If you’ve been on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan between 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. this past week, you’ve likely heard chants of “Solidarity Forever,” impassioned speeches about quarantine conditions and a noticeable lack of construction noise. If you haven’t figured it out by now, the Graduate Employees’ Organization, non-unionized resident advisers and a host of MDining staff have been striking to protest the University’s inexcusable mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. GEO has additionally emphasized the deconstruction of the University’s relationship with and reliance on the Ann Arbor Police Department and armed campus police. Simply put, these strikes on campus are necessary for the collective health and safety of the University and Ann Arbor as a broader community. On Wednesday, Sept. 16, GEO ended the strike after accepting an offer from the University. However, the broader problems of community health and systemic injustices still stand and ought to be analyzed after the historic strike came to an end.
For many at the University, U-M’s COVID-19 planning has been an utter letdown. Between public health experts’ assessments, the University’s own ethics committee and the general student sentiment, the University has dropped the ball on any semblance of a “health-informed” fall semester. This fumbling of critical decision-making and lack of transparency has had widespread impacts that affect the entire University and Ann Arbor communities. For undergraduates, the lack of transparent communication from the administration on decision-making, the absence of randomized testing and increased tuition make it incredibly hard to navigate the complexities of life as a college student, let alone during a pandemic.
“The lack of details and transparency about the University’s reopening plans was very concerning,” Art & Design junior Maggie Wiebe said. “By the time it became apparent how ill-planned and dangerous the University’s reopening plan was, it was already too late for most people to change their plans for the fall.”
For R.A.s, lack of sufficient personal protective equipment, no enforcement mechanisms for social distancing or mask-wearing and little transparent communication from the University make the risk of transmission and fear of transmission unnecessarily high. For graduate students, the lack of a universal right to work remotely, no representation in the decision-making process and an insufficient universal child care subsidy make their lives as instructors and students dangerous and incredibly hard to balance. For the wider Ann Arbor community, public schooling has been remote in lieu of the University’s decision to bring students back to campus, and online schooling is more detrimental to K-12 education than to college. These mounting stakes and tensions made a strike effectively inevitable as negotiations and communications with the University were unproductive for both GEO and ResStaff.
“We feel that a strike is necessary because the U-M admin has chosen to continue with their reckless and unsafe reopening plans without following the guidance of public health experts or their own ethics committee,” Dominique Bouavichith, a graduate student in Rackham Graduate School and member organizer of GEO, wrote in an email statement to The Daily. He continued, addressing the necessity of a strike itself, “GEO has tried to bargain toward our demands at the table, and the administration refused to budge in any substantive way…” This lack of action precipitated not only the GEO strike, but a strike of non-unionized R.A.s with similar sentiments.
An R.A., who wishes to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation from the University, expressed frustration and stated “The fact that (the administration) felt they needed to bring everyone back to campus to make money, when we don’t even have a firm enough pandemic plan so that students in quarantine are getting snacks, getting hot meals and consistently getting fresh soap is ridiculous.”
The problems highlighted by this R.A., and the fact that they fear losing their housing for making these points publicly, are indicative of an administration that is blinded by corruption, stumbling into a dangerous “wealth-informed” fall semester. As corruption has plagued this particular administration, from repeated sexual assault and misconduct scandals to the mistreatment of the Dearborn and Flint campuses, a strike is the most — if not only — effective way to enact change. It leaps over the typical constraints that prevent action, having to operate on the University’s schedule and trying to separate activism and labor, and hits the University where it matters: the financials.
Striking, or withholding labor, is technically an illegal action for public unions to take in the state of Michigan. University President Mark Schlissel and Provost Susan Collins have leaned on this law in their initial patronizing messages to the wider university community as a scare tactic to push undergraduates away from taking actions in solidarity with GEO. This messaging should be ignored, and we should question whether this law has any relevant purpose except to prevent substantive institutional change from occurring. I urge unions and non-unionized groups across campus to consider this perspective while examining the possibility of joining GEO and the R.A.s, who will continue to organize despite the official strike ending.
When the strike was ongoing, whether groups were moving forward as a union to strike alongside GEO or seeking actions to support their efforts, solidarity is important for the success of these collective demands. “It’s crucial to be supporting labor and workers … solidarity in organizing is how we will win,” University alum Hoai An Pham said.
She continued, “The history of organizing and relationships that have been built up and cultivated until this point have undoubtedly made this strike stronger … one example of this could be from construction workers who are now striking because GEO workers joined construction worker picket lines years ago, or all of the undergrads who saw organizing done in years past and are joining the picket lines now because of that.” Solidarity among community allies is a must to support this necessary strike.
Admittedly, many are just beginning to understand the importance of strikes and hold some confusion about what has been occurring on campus. “Two big misconceptions … people think they can’t support or participate if they aren’t members of the union and that the workers are being selfish in shutting down the school. Both are false,” Vidhya Aravind, University alum and former solidarity and political action chair of GEO, stated.
She continued, “Everyone is welcome on the line but there are a ton of virtual ways to show up too. The more disrupted campus life is, the more pressure UMich will face to rectify things … Remember, the people that care for us deserve comfortable work environments, and fair compensation and benefits. If they don’t have those things and the University refuses to give those things (as they are now), then they feel forced to strike.”
GEO went on strike for anti-racist, abolitionist and community health demands, and continue to organize; R.A.s are still fighting for safe treatment, transparency from the administration and proper treatment of quarantined students; community members stand in solidarity with their work. Now, it is important to consider what comes next. While these efforts that are working toward community safety certainly have continued momentum, a general strike should have guaranteed that intersectional demands were met.
Transportation, MDining and University faculty shouldn’t have to go on strike to be able to receive better hazard pay. Undergraduates shouldn’t have to walk out of classes that professors don’t cancel in solidarity. Ann Arbor families shouldn’t have to virtually or physically join the picket line to protect their community health, which is directly related to an outbreak at the University. But the swifter the collective action, the more effective it will be. Support organizers and strikers now. Solidarity forever.
Andrew Gerace can be reached at email@example.com.