Graduate students to strike in protest of fall reopening

Sunday, September 6, 2020 - 3:57pm

GEO members held a "die-in" on the Diag to protest the University's reopening on Monday, Aug. 31.

GEO members held a "die-in" on the Diag to protest the University's reopening on Monday, Aug. 31. Buy this photo
Maddie Fox/Daily

The Graduate Employees’ Organization, which represents more than 2,000 graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants, announced Monday that its members have voted to strike in response to the University of Michigan’s fall reopening plans. The move could substantially disrupt academic operations through the course of next week. 

In a press release announcing the strike, which is set to begin Tuesday, GEO noted the gravity of the decision. According to the release, 79 percent of GEO voters supported the work stoppage.

“This is an historic moment; GEO membership has voted to strike in the middle of a pandemic at the beginning of the academic year, and is prepared to withhold our labor in pursuit of a safe and just campus for all,” the statement read.

In a Twitter thread outlining its plans, GEO said the union will hold an emergency virtual general membership meeting Monday night ahead of the strike, which will feature both in-person and remote components. 

“Much of our picketing will be in person, and we’ll make sure that safety is paramount. Masks are required, and we’ll be physically distant on the picket line,” one tweet read.

The strike will be time-limited and run until Friday, with the potential for reauthorization if the University does not meet the organization’s demands. GEO is asking for the diversion of funds from the Division of Public Safety and Security and more COVID-19 protections, such as the right to work remotely for all graduate student instructors, more transparency in opening plans and protection from hiring discrimination for those who wish to work remotely amid the pandemic.

GEO’s press release said policing and COVID-19 are closely linked.

“We highlight that GEO views our anti-policing demands as inseparable from our COVID demands,” the release read. “They are linked explicitly, through the University’s decision to expand the policing of our community in a perverse effort to enforce social distancing, and implicitly, through the ways the crises of the pandemic and racist policing both disproportionately affect the most vulnerable among us.”

GEO has called for a “safe and just” response to the pandemic and held a “die-in” last week to protest the in-residence semester. Local leadership came to the decision to hold a strike vote amid concerns the University was not adequately responding to their demands. 

GEO Secretary Amir Fleischmann, a Rackham student, told The Daily the organization’s bargaining team felt continued negotiation would be futile.

“Its the feeling of our bargaining team that there was not much more progress to be made at the bargaining table,” Fleischmann said. “And thats why we feel it’s necessary to resort to these tactics. Because the University has shown that its not really been willing to compromise on a lot of these issues.”

GEO’s announcement comes on Labor Day, a federal holiday in honor of American workers. The strike follows the ratification of the union’s new three-year contract with the University in April.

In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald pointed out that GEO striking violates both the union’s contract and state law. 

“The state of Michigan prohibits public employees from striking,” Fitzgerald wrote. “GEO’s contract with U-M also prohibits the union and GSIs and GSSAs from taking part in any action or interference with the operations of the university, such as failing to report for duty or the failure to perform their employment duties.”

Fitzgerald said GEO had raised a variety of issues that “cannot be resolved as a matter of their contract or through a collective bargaining procedure.” He added that the University still intends to move forward with classes despite the strike.

GEO’s press release accused the University of failing to discuss their members’ concerns about policing in tandem with demands involving the school’s response to COVID-19.

“The University has again refused to bargain over these policing-related demands in our current impact bargaining negotiations, claiming that they are not relevant to University COVID-19 policies,” the release read. “GEO membership’s commitment to including anti-policing demands in our current stoppage platform demonstrates how urgent and linked our membership’s priorities are. The university administration has run roughshod over the lives of the community’s most vulnerable.”

Some members of the University community have taken issue with the use of police officers to monitor student behavior for violations of social distancing guidelines as part of its Ambassador Program. Others worried the program didn’t have strong enough enforcement mechanisms. 

The University reversed course in response to the criticism. On Aug. 30, the University confirmed the program will no longer have sworn officers in patrolling teams. The teams still include unarmed members of the Division of Public Safety and Security.

“As always, police may be called to activities that present a safety risk or are in violation of the law, but the idea is for Michigan Ambassadors to first proactively provide outreach in the community to communicate and remind students about public health best practices,” University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel wrote in a Sept. 3 email to students.

Fleischmann said members are particularly frustrated by the University’s hesitance to address issues where it would not have to spend any additional money.

“And in particular, some of these things are issues that would not cost the University a dime to implement,” Fleischmann said. “In particular, like the changes to the childcare subsidies that were asking for, or demilitarizing DPSS, thats not something that would come out of the Universitys budget. So theres not really a good reason we can see for why they would do this aside from obstinacy.”

GEO is associated with the American Federation for Teachers, which announced in July it will support “local and/or state affiliate safety strikes on a case-by-case basis as a last resort.”

The Lecturers Employee Organization, a union representing non-tenure track faculty at the University, expressed support for GEO’s decision, claiming similar frustrations with the administration in a statement.

“Like our graduate student colleagues, LEO condemns the way the Administration has mismanaged the return to classes this Fall: employees, including Lecturers, were not properly consulted; information about the Fall plan, and internal disagreements over it, have been withheld; and the testing regime in place appears inadequate to the task of keeping students and employees safe,” the statement reads. “We stand in solidarity with GEO and all of the graduate student workers concerned for their lives and livelihoods, and encourage Lecturers to support their efforts.”

The University of Michigan’s chapter of the College Democrats also rallied behind GEO, issuing a statement in support of the union and encouraging their members to sign up for picket shifts.

“Unlike University ‘leaders,’ we are proud to stand behind GEO as they take the bold leadership required to protect the safety and well-being of our fellow students and the broader Washtenaw County community,” the statement read.  

Ryan Glauser, a member of GEO, took to Twitter on Saturday to express his frustration with the University for not meeting graduate students’ demands.

“... Grad students have asked for help for months!” Glauser wrote. “When we asked for emergency funding, we were denied. When we asked for pay raises that match (University) documentation on living standard, we were given an inflation rate increase.”

Glauser was not alone in using social media to promote the strike vote. Several GSIs spoke out in favor of the strike and encouraged their colleagues to participate.

Former GEO member Jean Hardy, previously a PhD candidate in the School of Information and now an assistant professor at Michigan State University, described the strike as a question of protecting the University community.

“My former union @UMich is voting on a strike in response to the university’s inability to protect its students, faculty, staff, and community members during the pandemic,” Hardy wrote on Twitter. “As an alum (because I can say that now), the way the university is handling this crisis is deplorable.”

This isn’t GEO’s first time taking action against the University. In 2008, members called for a two-day walkout. According to GEO’s website, the first day “saw large crowds and some of the University construction sites were shut down when workers refused to cross the GEO picket line.” The effort was “so effective that UM ultimately agreed to a 13.2% increase in wages over 3 years for its GSIs, healthcare for all fractions, and domestic partner coverage,” the website reads.

This time around, other members of the University community are again pledging not to cross GEO’s picket line. Fleischmann said LEO members have agreed to refrain from punishing graduate students for their role in the strike.

The union is also asking undergraduate students not to attend class, virtually or in person, as a show of solidarity.

“I would say that GEO is fighting for everybody on campus with this work stoppage,” Fleischmann said. “Our policing demands in particular affect undergrads of color, who are harassed by DPSS and threatened physically by the presence of police on and around campus. And I would also add that having a more robust testing policy from the University, which is one of our demands, is something that would protect the safety of everybody on campus, (and) also everybody in the Washtenaw County community.”

Managing News Editor Leah Graham contributed reporting.

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