Whether it be in Amazon facilities across the country or right here at the University of Michigan, unions and union activity have been making headlines in recent days. Unions have been relevant in American politics and life since the organized labor movement gained a foundation in 1886, when the American Federation of Labor was founded. As we come out of Labor Day and approach a potential strike by the University’s Lecturers’ Employee Organization, it is imperative to think about the role of organized labor both in our community and beyond. Apart from delivering things like increased wages, safer working conditions, eight-hour workdays and the concept of a weekend, unions play a critical role in the operations of a vast place like the University of Michigan.
Before last fall, when the Graduate Employees’ Organization struck, I doubt most of us could name a single union on campus, let alone understand the varied roles these labor organizations play. Many students don’t realize unions — such as GEO, LEO, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the American Federation of Teachers, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and others — represent workers from all across the job spectrum at the University.
From graduate student instructors to lecturers, bus drivers, hospital nurses, construction workers, stage crewmen and countless other professions, union work is what keeps the University of Michigan going — and sometimes grinds it to a halt. Whether it involves GEO, LEO or another labor organization, understanding striking and its implications is both timely and important.
If you were on campus this time last year, you most certainly saw, participated in or at least heard about the GEO and Residential Adviser strikes that took place on campus. Between picket lines across campus and chants of “U-M works because we do,” the presence of a strike was unmissable.
A strike, or a work stoppage “in order to force an employer to comply with demands,” according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is an incredibly powerful tool in a union’s arsenal when fighting against uncooperative management. Union strength comes from its numbers, promise of collective action and the possibility of a strike.
Generally speaking, unions try to avoid striking due to the potential ramifications of such action. Unions can face a misguided public backlash if they withhold labor from producing a popular product or service. Union workers also do not get paid during strikes and rely on strike pay, something that can diminish or disappear if strikes drag out.
In some circumstances, unions may even face legal consequences. In the state of Michigan, public sector unions aren’t legally allowed to strike. In this instance, however, it is important to note that legality and morality do not always go hand-in-hand; striking is a form of speech and should be protected whether it’s being done by a private or public union. When strikes arrive, they deserve respect. As Mary Manning, the famous flashpoint of the anti-apartheid Dunnes Stores strike in Ireland, was taught by her father as a child, “no one loses a day’s wages and stands in the bitter cold without a good reason.”
In GEO’s case last fall, the University’s lack of robust testing protocols, failure to provide sufficient resources for international students and unwillingness to provide graduate student caregivers with flexible, pandemic-sensitive childcare options were the tip of a dangerous iceberg. In addition, the University’s lack of substantive response to Black Lives Matter and policing concerns on campus was starkly apparent.
After the University failed to come to an agreement with GEO regarding COVID-19 protocols and refused to have any dialogue surrounding policing demands, GEO voted to strike for a safer, smarter University reopening that wouldn’t needlessly risk the lives of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff and the wider Ann Arbor community. While the strike ended under the threat of a cowardly legal recourse from the University, concrete gains were made to make the fall 2020 semester safer for all.
In our own community, the GEO strike had a massive impact. While it was a bit disruptive to undergraduates for a week or two — again, disruption is the point — we were all safer because of it. While GEO’s strike focused primarily on ensuring the safety and health of its own members, the union’s successes were a victory for all students amid a deadly pandemic.
As LEO continues to be stonewalled and gaslit by the University, the feelings of a strike are in the air. Regardless of whether or not University lecturers strike, here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
First and foremost, don’t cross the picket line in the event of a strike. “Crossing the picket line” is an expression used to describe shopping or working at a store or business that’s workers are on strike. When a union decides to strike, whether it be outside Angell Hall, the shopping mall or an online retailer, cooperation from the public helps strikers secure their goals, which are generally in the public interest. Crossing a picket line and purchasing a product or partaking in a service is a tacit consent of whatever the strikers are fighting against and makes strikes drag out longer as unions and management struggle over leverage.
Second, do research, understand labor laws in your state and advocate for positive change. At the federal level, consider supporting legislation like the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. At the state level, push back against exploitative laws and union-busting practices. And at the local level, work to understand how your company or university interacts with unions or organized labor, and advocate that they treat workers and unions with respect and dignity.
Third, consider joining or starting a union. Labor has been and continues to be a strong force in politics and American life. Union representation and collective bargaining have helped the American worker secure political standing, increased wages, better working conditions and a host of other concrete gains. Unions have already helped you over the years in more ways than you probably can imagine.
In short, it’s not just on Labor Day we should think about or thank unions and union workers. The unions in your local community, state and country have and continue to make a huge difference. The next time you get on a bus, see a show, go shopping or take a class, remember that a union was probably involved in making that happen.
Andrew Gerace is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.