GEO stages ‘die-in’ to protest fall reopening

Monday, August 31, 2020 - 5:37pm

GEO members held a "die-in" on the Diag to protest the University's reopening Monday afternoon.

GEO members held a "die-in" on the Diag to protest the University's reopening Monday afternoon. Buy this photo
Maddie Fox/Daily

“We are not ready,” Charlotte Smith, a nurse at Michigan Medicine, said from the steps of Hatcher on Monday afternoon. “We witnessed more suffering and loss in the last two months than most of us have seen in our entire career. We put our peers in body bags, we put our health at risk, we isolated from our families. We’re not ready.”

Members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization held a “die-in” on the Diag to protest the University of Michigan in-residence fall semester plan, focusing their criticism on University President Mark Schlissel and Regent Ronald Weiser (R), who owns McKinley Companies, an Ann Arbor real estate company.

GEO has been engaged in impact bargaining related to the in-residence fall term. GEO Secretary Amir Fleischmann told The Daily three main changes the union wants to see the administration make: letting graduate student instructors have the unconditional option to teach remotely, giving more flexible funds for parents or caregivers to spend on child care and giving graduate students degree funding and timeline extensions.

Beyond these demands for graduate students, Fleischmann also enumerated other demands the organization has made of the administration, such as reducing cooperation with the Ann Arbor Police Department (especially in enforcing COVID-19 restrictions) and offering more support for international students. The University announced recently that armed police officers will no longer be accompanying the student ambassadors on campus.

“There’s been a visa crisis that’s caused many of us to wonder when we’ll be able to see our families again and the U-M International Center, while charging a $500 per term fee, has not even had a phone line for international students to call,” Fleischmann said.

Smith decried the University’s spending cuts and accused University leaders of prioritizing money over lives, a sentiment that served as a theme of the protest.

“Because there’s money to be made, they decided to risk another round of acute and long-term suffering in this community,” Smith said. “We have to demand better and we have to expect more from the Leaders and the Best.”

After Smith, Julia Hoffert, a staff member at the Ross School of Business, expressed her frustration with what she called the second-tier treatment of staff members when compared to tenured faculty.

“I had to accept the unfortunate reality that my work as staff and the work of my fellow staff members is often undervalued in comparison with the work of academics, research and teaching work,” Hoffert said. “What is happening, though, through this pandemic is that in addition to our work being undervalued, perhaps our lives were (also) being undervalued.”

Following the speakers, pallbearers brought in two cardboard coffins and placed them on the steps to the library and a trumpeter played Taps. After Taps, protestors laid down in the Diag, with some holding signs emblazoned with slogans such as “Has truth become meaningless here, too?” and “Dying is not in my contract.” The die-in lasted five minutes, one for each University employee who has died from COVID-19.

LSA and Music, Theatre & Dance junior Andrew Gerace, who is an opinion columnist for The Michigan Daily, spoke as an undergraduate representative. He said undergraduates at the University feel abandoned, disappointed and betrayed by Schlissel and the administration.

“Looking at the current landscape with at least five employees of U of M already having passed away due to COVID, having recklessly brought students back to campus and now increasing the police presence (eyeing) students, I’m forced to ask these questions: Who does President Schlissel and the administration work for and who do they care about?” Gerace said.

Ashley Lucas, a professor in the Residential College, spoke referencing the recent Aug. 28 faculty senate meeting at which faculty members considered a vote of no confidence against Schlissel due to the University’s response to COVID-19 and the decision to host an in-residence fall semester.

“The faculty as a whole has lost confidence in President Schlissel,” Lucas said. “There was a meeting last week where over 550 of my peers gathered, and the majority of them are in favor of a vote of no confidence in President Schlissel. The University administration did not allow us to have that vote last week. It will be happening on September 16. This delay has caused us what might actually be the cost of lives in bringing all of these people back to campus in the intervening weeks.”

Lucas also mentioned a strike of faculty at universities across the country for racial justice and to acknowledge police violence in communities across the U.S. She concluded her speech by imploring graduate students to join in the strike and not to perform any academic work or teaching Sept. 8 and 9.

After the speakers, protestors marched in two groups, led by the caskets, to Schlissel’s residence on South University Avenue, chanting, “Save our health, not your wealth” and “health-informed is a lie, you don’t care if people die.” Protestors then reconvened in Regents’ Plaza outside of the Fleming Administration Building for more chants before dispersing.

GEO will be holding a vote Friday to send out a strike ballot.

Daily Staff Reporter Dominic Coletti can be reached at dcoletti@umich.edu.