U-M deans push on with classes as graduate students strike

Tuesday, September 8, 2020 - 8:55pm

As GEO's strike continues, deans across campus are working to cover teaching gaps.

As GEO's strike continues, deans across campus are working to cover teaching gaps. Buy this photo
Becca Mahon/Daily

As Graduate Student Instructors picket in protest of the University of Michigan’s fall reopening plan, deans across campus are shifting to cover the teaching gaps caused by the Graduate Employees’ Organization strike. Michael S. Barr, dean of the Ford School of Public Policy, summed up academic leadership’s approach to the lost labor in an email to students and faculty Monday night.

“What will a work stoppage mean for the Ford School? Classes will be continuing,” Barr wrote.

Barr is not alone in pressing on despite the strike, which began Tuesday. In emails to faculty members at various colleges, deans have repeatedly emphasized that the strike is in violation of both state law and the University’s contract with GEO, the union representing more than 2,000 GSIs and graduate student staff assistants. 

In more than half a dozen emails obtained by The Daily, deans and other academic leaders told faculty members that the University has “worked diligently” to resolve the union’s concerns. But, like Barr in his message to the Public Policy School community, they all said they were prepared to continue academic operations within their schools despite the strike.

The deans of LSA, the Ross School of Business, the College of Engineering, the School of Social Work, the School of Kinesiology, the School for Environment and Sustainability and the School of Public Health all said they expect their faculty — including graduate students, lecturers and professors — to complete their job duties in the event of a strike. GEO has asked lecturers and professors to cancel classes and for undergraduates not to attend scheduled classes in solidarity for the duration of the strike.

The work stoppage is currently slated to end Friday unless a reauthorization is approved by the union.

The deans also wrote in their emails that they recognize some GSIs will stop teaching during the strike, noting there may have to be faculty standing in for GSIs, having self-study assignments or combining course sections.

“This work stoppage, if it happens, will damage a very important third party — our undergraduate students — who need and have every right to expect their classes to meet and their education to continue,” LSA Dean Anne Curzan wrote. “I know all of us are concerned about the many disruptions that current undergraduates have already experienced in their college education due to the pandemic, and we want to continue to strive to provide them with as accessible and uninterrupted an educational experience as we can during these unusual times.” 

One of GEO’s requests includes the universal right to work remotely, which includes the option to transition from in-person to remote teaching at any point during the semester. Every dean denied in their emails that any graduate student was forced to teach an in-person class if they were uncomfortable doing so, claiming that to their knowledge all people who voiced concerns were granted the opportunity to work virtually.

In addition to remote teaching, GEO has called for changes to policing on campus and added support for international students, who have previously spoken out against a fee that is only required of international students.

GEO began impact bargaining with the University over these issues in August because the union felt its concerns needed to be addressed in a formal setting. GEO and the University reached an agreement on a new three-year contract last spring, which took effect when the previous contract expired May 1.

Every email from the deans reviewed by The Daily included a sentence that described the communication with GEO as rapidly evolving. Some of the emails also warned of making unauthorized statements, which can create confusion and stall progress.

The Academic Human Resources Department was listed in these emails as the best group to handle absences and other strike-related issues. Lori Ploutz-Snyder of the School of Kinesiology, F. DuBois Bowman of the School of Public Health, Jonathan Overpeck of the School for Environment and Sustainability and Lynn Videka of the School of Social Work were among those who said employees should contact their Human Resources representatives if other employees do not show up for work during the strike without advance approval.

In an email Tuesday night, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said HR could help different departments adapt to the work stoppage.

“While we cannot speak to the communications that may have been sent directly by the schools and colleges, it is logical that professors would report to their unit HR office about GSIs who do not report to work,” Fitzgerald wrote. “The HR office may be able to assist with securing other personnel to cover those duties.”

The deans’ emails largely repeat talking points issued from the Provost’s office on Sunday night. Provost Susan Collins, who was recently approved for the position after Martin Philbert stepped down amid allegations of sexual misconduct, wrote in an email to faculty that the University feels it has already resolved GEO’s concerns in regard to child care and the right to teach remotely. She said GEO’s other demands, such as defunding the Division of Public Safety and Security, fall outside the scope of the union’s contract and relevant negotiations.

“We do not believe it is necessary for GEO to strike,” Collins wrote. “We successfully reached an agreement with GEO in April on its entire collective bargaining agreement. GEO's strike falls outside of that negotiation and is based on a number of issues, some of which have very little to do with the wages, hours, and working conditions of GSIs and GSSAs. A strike is not appropriate, as the primary impact will be on our students, particularly our undergraduate students.”

Collins also said faculty should be instructed to report employees who miss work to HR.

Curzan wrote in an email to LSA chairs, directors and chief administrators that students should be updated on how or if their classes will be impacted by the strike. She also urged faculty to not pressure GSIs to teach or not to teach, saying “there should be no negative repercussions at the department level beyond the possible impact of any university-level actions (if relevant).”

“In terms of responding to graduate students’ concerns about retaliation, we recommend steering away from the word ‘retaliation’ and emphasizing our commitment to their success as scholars and teachers and their well-being as integral members of our community, which remains unchanged as we navigate this situation,” Curzan wrote.

In her email Sunday, Collins disputed the necessity of the strike and offered assurances the University would continue its operations “entirely.”

“We will want to work to ensure that courses have alternatives or substitutes to take the place of instruction GSIs would have provided, so that all students may enjoy the benefit of the educational experience despite the strike,” Collins wrote.

Fitzgerald declined to offer specifics on what consequences there will be — if any — for those who participate in the strike.

“As communication continues between GEO and the university, it is too soon to say what the consequence may be for a GEO member who fails to report to work,” Fitzgerald wrote.

Managing News Editor Leah Graham and Daily News Editor Alex Harring can be reached at leahgra@umich.edu and harring@umich.edu.