One year ago, our campus felt chaotic. Inadequate testing, spiking COVID-19 cases and thousands of frightened and disgruntled university workers, who, in a shock to the system, declared they were going on strike for better working conditions.
Among these workers were more than a hundred members of University Housing’s Residential Staff who joined the strike to pursue their own demands, in a two-week-long struggle that University Housing refers to as a “work stoppage.” With the Lecturers’ Union on track to go on strike this month, unmet labor demands could once again deeply impact student life on campus.
Why are so many labor demands not met at our university? To understand this, we should first understand what happened with the largest undergraduate workers’ strike in the University of Michigan’s history, the 2020 ResStaff strike.
Without a union, these undergraduate student employees supported the Graduate Employees’ Organization in their strike, organized in opposition to the University’s fall 2020 reopening plans. After initial requests were not met, and insufficient answers were provided in a ResStaff Town Hall, the strike commenced.
One factor that explains the hardiness of the ResStaff strike was the overwhelming support on campus. LSA Student Government released a statement in support of the ResStaff strike after a vote of 26-0. One petition written in support of ResStaff received more than 2,000 signatures before the strike’s end. GEO organized a solidarity rally with MDining workers and ResStaff. An open letter circulated among non-tenured U-M staff garnered nearly 200 signatures. Though support was not universal, it is certain that the ResStaff strike sent ripples throughout Ann Arbor and beyond.
Looking back on this “stoppage,” we are left to consider: What has changed? Was it a success? Are conditions now better for RAs and other members of ResStaff?
One must look no further than at the strikers’ original demands to evaluate the impact:
First: “Regular access to testing for all of ResStaff (not only symptomatic individuals).” The University achieved this early on, offering as-needed testing for all members of the campus community, and mandating weekly testing for residence hall residents (including RAs) in the Winter 2021 semester. With the campus vaccine mandate now in effect, weekly testing is no longer mandated by the University except for students and faculty who have not yet received the vaccine or who are exempted.
Second: “Providing sufficient, effective PPE to ResStaff and Students.” Housing provided masks and gloves for ResStaff to use when working in community spaces, as well as plastic face barriers. Students were not extended this same degree of personal protective equipment, though they (and ResStaff) were issued reusable cotton masks as well as U-M-branded bandanas during their move-in.
Third: “Enforcement of social distancing and face coverings inside and outside of residence halls and dining halls” and “enforcement of currently unenforceable guest policy by non-student employees.” Though this policy was in place on paper, there were many reported cases of lax enforcement of U-M policies. The onus was placed on RAs to enforce these policies during their work inside residence halls; dining hall staff did likewise at their workplaces. It’s unclear whether this demand was ever fully met to the extent that the strikers desired. As part of this demand, RAs desired more stringent consequences for policy breakers. Whether it was due to this change or not, there were certainly students whose housing contracts were terminated as a result of COVID-19-related violations.
Fourth: “Hiring and staffing to normal capacity for all facilities and housing teams.” This demand is harder to pin down, however, given the fact that University Housing’s website has job postings for both undergraduate and graduate communities. It’s likely still the case that the residence halls are not fully staffed at the moment.
Fifth: “More specific public and ResStaff communication and transparency.” University Housing reinstated their policy of providing daily updates to ResStaff members via email; the U-M COVID-19 dashboard also began breaking down case statistics by building and floor. However, ResStaff members were quick to point out inaccuracies that seemed to appear in the dashboard data.
Sixth: “Hazard pay for ResStaff.” Most members of ResStaff are not compensated outside of their room and board expenses. ResStaff was not provided with hazard pay in any form; a stipend of $200 in Blue Bucks was provided to ResStaff, to be used at University-owned restaurants and stores. This one-time payment of “Rick Bucks” (so dubbed after the Director of Housing, Rick Gibson) did not fully meet the strikers’ demands for compensation in recognition of the unique threats of the pandemic.
And lastly: “A formal statement of no retaliation from Housing Administration should a ResStaff Union be formed” and “a formal statement of no retaliation from Housing Administration or University Administration against any ResStaff member who went on strike, is currently on strike, or is supporting the strike.” For many on ResStaff, this point was especially controversial, as ResStaff members allege that Gibson implicitly threatened to fire ResStaff members in a closed-door meeting. Regarding a ResStaff union, the University explicitly declined to make any agreements regarding any sort of future bargaining unit.
Most of the demands were met, in one way or another, by University Housing. Others will eventually be deemed moot after the end of the pandemic. This does not include, however, the two most important long-term demands: hazard pay and the tacit permission that a ResStaff union may be formed.
It comes as no surprise that the University would want to prevent the formal unionization of ResStaff, given the successes that have been achieved by the RAs already, as well as those achieved by actual unions in the form of GEO and LEO in recent years.
The tactics used by the University to defuse the strike are not new. In the case of the ResStaff strike, the same tactics can continue to be employed.
Most RAs work for a maximum of three years before they graduate. When they put forth their demands, all the administration needs to do is wait them out. They will graduate and be replaced by students who don’t have the knowledge or confidence to make the same demands. By the time these students become empowered to advocate for themselves, it is often too late, and the cycle repeats.
It’s with this framework in mind that we look toward an uncertain future. Time will only tell what will become of the ResStaff’s unmet demands and whether they emerge as an exception or an embodiment of this cycle.
Tyler Watt is a senior in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts, and currently serves as President of the LSA Student Government. In addition, he has been a member of ResStaff at the University of Michigan since 2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zackariah Farah is a senior in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts, and currently serves as Vice President of the LSA Student Government. Farah has participated in a variety of activist spaces on campus, including the strikes in fall 2020. He can be reached at email@example.com.