Facing legal pressure, graduate students accept University’s proposal to end strike

Wednesday, September 16, 2020 - 9:47pm

Members and supporters of GEO rallied outside the Union Wednesday morning.

Members and supporters of GEO rallied outside the Union Wednesday morning. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Facing an injunction and the potential for retaliation from the University of Michigan, the Graduate Employees’ Organization voted to accept an offer from administration in a virtual meeting Wednesday night. GEO members will return to work immediately under the agreement, ending the work stoppage that began last week. At the meeting, 1,074 GEO members voted to accept the offer, 239 members voted to reject and 66 abstained.

This offer is the second GEO, the union representing more than 2,0000 graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants at the University, has received since the strike began Sept. 8. The first offer was rejected with a margin of hundreds of votes by members, who said at a meeting last week they would choose to keep striking until they received a proposal that addressed enough of their concerns to warrant ending the strike.

Before accepting the University's proposal, the work stoppage was slated to end Friday. GEO began voting Sept. 11 — the day the strike was originally set to end — to extend their work stoppage into a second week. It officially authorized the extension on Sunday night.

In a statement Wednesday night, GEO said it would not stop its organizing efforts.

“We’re not going anywhere. We’re not giving up,” the statement read. “We need each other still, and we need to show up where and when we’re called. We have built relationships of trust and support not only amongst ourselves, but with various other groups on this campus. We will continue to reach out a hand, to work and organize collectively, demanding safety for everyone as we continue to strengthen these ties.”

The University sought a court injunction and temporary restraining order to get graduate students to resume teaching earlier this week. The complaint said the University has suffered irreparable injury as a result of the strike, including disruption of vital functions and a loss in reputation. The University requested relief against GEO in excess of $25,000 for “any and all additional costs, expenses, salaries and other economic damages suffered by the University as a result of GEO’s breach of the collective bargaining agreement.”

Because GEO members voted to accept the new proposal, the University said it will not retaliate against the union or individual students. Had the proposal been rejected and the court decided against the graduate students, the union would be held in contempt of court, meaning GEO would be required to call for an end to the strike and any members still participating could potentially face fines of $250 per day of additional striking or arrests, according to information disseminated at the meeting.

According to the plan, a three-member panel will be assembled within two business days to examine requests to work remotely filed by graduate student employees. The panel will be composed of one member selected by GEO, one member selected by the University and one representative who is jointly agreed upon. 

The proposal also ensures three members of the University’s Board of Regents will meet with GEO representatives twice per term to discuss public safety and policing at the University. GEO will also be included in a task force created to assess policing at the University that will evaluate best practices for improving the Division of Public Safety and Security. 

Under the proposal, the Michigan Ambassador program, which faced criticism from various student groups, would be discussed and revised. The first proposal offered by the University last Wednesday included no response to GEO’s demands for diverting funding and ending ties with law enforcement on and around campus. 

Additional funding for daycare and an extended range of the age of children who are covered under the University’s child care support plan are also included in the proposal.

As with the first plan, GSIs or GSSAs can instruct students in classes to wear masks and can cancel class if a student refuses to comply. The University again offered to provide graduate students with information about where to acquire personal protective equipment and to disclose the methodology of the surveillance testing program and the program’s capacity. 

Nineteen out of the 23 steering committee members were in favor of accepting the plan, sources with knowledge of the meeting told The Daily. Union leadership said they believe not being under threat of injunction would allow them to better support the more than 100 resident advisers at the University currently on strike. Dozens of MDining workers also initially organized a strike, though it was later postponed and replaced with a work slowdown due to fear of retaliation. 

GEO’s demands at the start of the strike included the universal right to work remotely without documentation and stronger COVID-19 testing plans with increased transparency surrounding testing data. The union also asked for increased child care support, more protections for international students and the reallocation of some DPSS funding.

The union gained support from faculty members in multiple departments, R.A.s also on strike and local unions, which did not cross the picket line. Central Student Government passed a resolution last week urging students not to attend classes in solidarity with the strike.

Deans at more than a half dozen schools at the University, including LSA and the Ross School of Business, said in emails obtained by The Daily they expected academic operations to continue during the strike.

As multiple strikes continued to grip the University community, Provost Susan Collins and University President Mark Schlissel held a town hall Tuesday to address concerns from community members. At the town hall, Schlissel acknowledged the labor disputes on campus and expressed a desire to hear various points of view. 

“There are many perspectives across the campus,” Schlissel said. “A lot of them are screaming so loudly that you can’t hear them. But I need to do more communicating with different types of people to understand the collective vision. I appreciate our grad students' voices, but I want to hear our faculty’s voice, our community members’ voices and I want to hear our neighbors in Ann Arbor’s voice and I want to hear our staff’s voices.”

Schlissel released a video Monday explaining his decision to ask the courts to intervene, emphasizing his desire for classes to continue as normal. He explained that while he wants to listen to community voices, he felt the University had no other option but to ask the Washtenaw County Circuit Court to mandate graduate students return to work.

“We want our great classes to continue, our students to learn without interference and we don’t want anyone to feel threatened simply for wanting to go to class,” Schlissel said in the video. “Going to the court was our only choice after learning the strike would continue. We’d much rather our classes be in session while we work out our differences.”

Collins also responded to the strike in a critical manner, writing in a Sept. 9 email that the strike was “disruptive, confusing and worrisome.”

“The University has a long and celebrated history of its community members standing up for what they believe in through acts of freedom of speech and peaceful protest,” Collins wrote in the email. “The strike violates Michigan law; in addition, GEO has agreed by contract not to take actions that interfere with the University’s operations, in this case, your education. Nonetheless, the University’s team will continue to meet with GEO in good faith to resolve remaining issues.”

GEO members and supporters have picketed every day since the strike began, both on campus and virtually. At a press conference Wednesday morning, GEO vice president Erin Markiewitz criticized the University's response to both the strike and the pandemic.

“Time and again, the University failed to provide comprehensive information,” Markiewitz said. “On the reopening to meet with us to discuss our concerns to provide an adequate pandemic response. And as a result, the University of Michigan has failed to keep us safe.”

Daily Staff Reporter Emma Ruberg can be reached at eruburg@umich.edu.


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