GEO strike highlights relationship between policing and health

Thursday, September 17, 2020 - 7:09pm

The Graduate Employees' Organization accepts the University of Michigan's proposal.

The Graduate Employees' Organization accepts the University of Michigan's proposal. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

The Graduate Employees’ Organization found broad support for their demands for greater accommodations against COVID-19, but its anti-policing demands became a lightning rod issue for those trying to criticize or delegitimize the union’s strike. 

Negotiations between the University of Michigan and the Graduate Employees’ Organization have been at the center of conversation on campus since GEO announced their strike last Monday in protest of the University’s COVID-19 response. 

Among the demands were calls for a “disarmed and demilitarized workplace,” defunding the Department of Public Safety and Security by 50% and reallocating the funds to “community-based justice initiatives,” and for the University to cut all ties with the Ann Arbor Police Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The union rejected an initial offer the University made last Wednesday which did not address the anti-policing demands. Following the GEO’s extension of their strike and the University’s subsequent action seeking an injunction against the union, GEO accepted the University’s second proposal to end the strike last night. 

According to GEO’s statement following the end of the strike, the second offer included a commitment from the University to revise the Michigan Ambassadors program and create a policing task force to evaluate DPSS and make recommendations about policing. The task force will have representation from both the GEO and Students of Color Liberation Front, which is a coalition of the Black Student Union, United Asian American Organizations, La Casa, Arab Student Association and Students Allied for Freedom and Education.

Though the University did not satisfy the group’s original demands, in their statement, GEO framed these changes as “incremental but real movement.”

“Our victories on policing in particular came from our members’ refusal to abandon these demands by accepting a first offer with zero progress on them, and, importantly, from the work of some of our Black members to reorient around and win strategic first victories in a long-term abolitionist organizing campaign,” the statement reads. 

GEO member Emma Soberano said she felt the University’s willingness to address policing was an important difference between the first and second offers.

“In the first case, when we chose to continue the strike, what I heard was… that the University was not willing to even discuss policing,” Soberano said. “And the fact that we got any movement at all is really a testament to the power of our coalition building.”

The University initially made statements implying that policing was not under the purview of union negotiations. In an initial Sept. 9 email regarding the work stoppage, Provost Susan Collins stressed that GEO could only negotiate matters regarding its employment. 

“GEO’s strike is based on a number of issues, many of which are unrelated to the wages, hours, and working conditions that define their employment as GSIs,” the email reads. “Issues that are not related to the employment of its members are not subjects that GEO can negotiate with the University.”

In a schoolwide email sent Sept. 11, University President Mark Schlissel wrote that policing issues required broader community engagement.

“Policing concerns are not readily solved through union negotiations,” Schlissel’s email reads.

GEO, however, argued that policing concerns are related to their employment because of the relationship between policing and student health. At a press conference on Wednesday, GEO Vice President Erin Markiewitz spoke to this sentiment.

“Policing, even when it does not result in violence, negatively affects the health of BIPOC and other vulnerable populations,” Markiewitz said. “As it affects the health and safety of our members, GEO asserts that policing is a labor issue and has a place at the bargaining table.”

GEO member Katherine White explained the policing demands in terms of workplace safety.

“The anti-policing demands specifically I think addressed feelings that Black and Brown students had of not feeling safe with armed police officers around campus,” White said. “Safety doesn’t look the same for all people, and we should be protecting the people who don’t feel safe by police.”

Members of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies published an op-ed Tuesday endorsing the GEO’s anti-policing demands.

“We applaud GEO for linking their employment demands to calls for justice, the protection of the health and safety of our community and the absolutely relevant de-militarization of local and campus police,” the op-ed reads. 

Similarly, in an op-ed published Monday, faculty members from the School of Public Health expressed their support for GEO, asserting that policing is a public health issue that can result in harm to both physical and mental health. The piece specifically addresses the Michigan Ambassador program, which has drawn controversy resulting in modifications of the program by the University. 

Some students questioned whether GEO’s initial anti-policing demands were pragmatic. Engineering senior Yilin Yang said while he supported the group’s COVID-19 related demands, he saw the policing demands as damaging to the group’s platform. 

“I explicitly support GEO’s COVID-19 related demands, and in my mind, that is by far the most important part of their platform,” Yang said. “The anti-policing demands, to me, seem unachievable in a purely practical sense. It seems to me that GEO is shooting itself in the foot by tacking on this underthought rider that the University can effortlessly exploit to discredit the entire union-strike movement.”

Yang said his main concern with the anti-policing demands was his fear that cutting ties with police would worsen the spread of COVID-19 by weakening the Michigan Ambassadors’ power to keep student gatherings in check.

“It seemed to me like these demands would have the effect of rendering toothless the University’s efforts to enforce compliance with local and state-level public health orders, and that, to me, was the biggest red flag that made me oppose those particular parts of the demands,” Yang said. 

Silke-Maria Weineck, chair of Comparative Literature and professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature, wrote in an email interview with The Daily that, though she supports GEO, police reform is a conversation requiring more than one group’s voice to be heard.

“With regard to the COVID safety demands, and by contrast, everybody would have benefited from enhanced testing and from true autonomy with regard to face to face teaching,” Weineck wrote. “But when it comes to policing, I may agree with GEO's take, but I know many others do not. So I think hashing it out will be a long collaborative process — I hope the university will let it be a truly meaningful one.”

But Ashley Lucas, associate professor of Theatre & Drama and former director of the Creative Prison Arts Project, wrote in an email to The Daily that she was disappointed with the way the strike ended. 

“A new task force is not an adequate answer to these policing concerns, but given that it will exist, I hope that university leadership will make sure that a member of the Carceral State Project faculty working group is appointed to the task force so that people who actually study policing can have some influence in the coming decisions,” Lucas wrote. “The abolishment of the ambassador teams is still very much needed, as are the disarmament of the campus police and the severing of ties between campus and city police.”

Soberano also expressed some frustration over the University’s suggestion of a task force to address policing concerns. 

“As many people have pointed out, task forces are used by universities and other institutions not only to put the labor of solving the University’s problems onto its Black and Brown students — who are the ones hurt by these problems existing in the first place — but also is used to wrap up progress in bureaucratic hurdles,” Soberano said. 

“But I think the fact that they even allowed us a seat at the table is a big step. And we had to listen to especially the Black students in our community who were telling us, ‘look, we’re afraid of what the University will do to us if we continue this strike.’”

Daily Staff Reporter Angelina Little can be reached at angelit@umich.edu.


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