Graduate students reject deal from University, opt to continue striking

Wednesday, September 9, 2020 - 9:17pm

Members of the Graduate Employee's Organization strike near the Central Campus Transit Center Wednesday afternoon.

Members of the Graduate Employee's Organization strike near the Central Campus Transit Center Wednesday afternoon. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

The University of Michigan Graduate Employees’ Organization — the union representing graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants that began striking Tuesday — rejected a deal from administrators in a general membership meeting Wednesday night. The proposal would have ended the strike and returned graduate students to teaching.

Justifications for ending the strike included concerns that other unions — mainly unions representing construction workers employed on projects across campus — would cross the picket line and that the University would retaliate if GEO did not pass this agreement. But despite having the support of GEO President Sumeet Patwardhan, members voted down the proposal by a several-hundred vote margin.

Under the University’s proposed plan, GSIs and GSSAs would be able to cancel class if a student refuses to wear a mask. If GSIs or GSSAs request to work remotely, they would not be able to do so while their request is considered and arbitrated. 

The University would also take steps to increase transparency of case data, including explaining their methodology and providing information about surveillance testing capacity, in addition to providing graduate students with more information about where to secure personal protective equipment. University administration refused to discuss GEO’s demands regarding the redirection of funds from the Division of Public Safety and Security. 

The University said it would not retaliate against graduate students participating in the strike if the offer is accepted. If it is not, the University administration threatened to take action and is “considering all options available,” sources with knowledge of the meeting told The Daily. This includes suing GEO for damages related to the breach and eliminating payroll deductions for union dues. 

The proposal will “explode,” meaning the offer can no longer be considered by GEO if the union does not stop the strike Wednesday. GEO leadership told members that the University administration had filed an unfair labor practice complaint after the union violated its contract’s no-strike clause.

GEO confirmed in a press release early Thursday morning that the union rejected the University's proposal.

"Membership decided by an overwhelming majority that the university’s offer did not constitute continued progress on these demands," the union wrote in the release.

More than 1,250 graduate students attended the meeting, a record-breaking turnout, according to GEO. This decision comes after the organization announced the strike on Monday and after two days of picketing on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

Members who urged the group to accept the offer cited concerns over losing momentum, fear about retaliation and a divide in labor if other trade unions decide to continue working.

Those who wanted to continue the strike said the University’s proposal is inadequate, thought accepting the offer would harm communities of color on campus and wanted to remain in solidarity with the resident advisers who went on strike earlier this morning without a union. 

GEO members were told by leadership that there could be retaliation in the future if this proposal exploded, as the no retaliation component would expire along with the proposal.

In a message to The Daily Wednesday night, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said, “We are disappointed and will carefully consider our next steps tomorrow.”

In a previous statement Tuesday, Fitzgerald had said that it was “too soon to say what the consequence may be for a GEO member who fails to report to work.”

University Provost Susan Collins and the deans of some colleges within the University instructed faculty to report employees who did not show up for work during the strike, according to emails obtained by The Michigan Daily. LSA Dean Anne Curzan encouraged school leadership in another email to refrain from retaliation against those who partake in the strike and to not pressure graduate students on participating, but said the strike would hurt undergraduates’ academic experience during an already unprecedented semester. 

Among their demands, GEO requested the right to work remotely for all GSIs and protection from hiring discrimination for those who wish to work remotely, more transparency in plans for the fall semester amid the pandemic and the diversion of funds from DPSS. The strike is slated to end Friday with the potential for reauthorization.

GEO represents more than 2,000 GSIs and GSSAs on the University’s three campuses. According to a press release, 79 percent of GEO voters supported the work stoppage. 

The University’s Office of Public Affairs released a statement on Monday condemning the strike. Fitzgerald said the University was prepared to continue all operations, including holding classes. 

“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 against 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 many of GEO’s demands, including those related to policing, were not within the scope of GEO’s contract.

Central Student Government, the largest representative assembly at the University, voted unanimously to pass a resolution supporting the GEO strike. CSG’s resolution called for students not to cross the picket line — meaning they should not attend class — in solidarity with GEO. The Lecturers’ Employee Organization also released a statement in solidarity.

Hours after CSG’s resolution passed, more than 100 residential advisers voted to strike in demand of increased COVID-19 protections and hazard pay for student University Housing employees. The strike, which began Wednesday morning, has had varying effects throughout the University’s residence halls, mostly impacting mailroom operations and lock-out services. GEO expressed solidarity with the R.A.s Thursday.

Daily News Editors Alex Harring and Emma Stein and Daily Staff Reporters Dominic Coletti and Dominick Sokotoff contributed reporting.

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


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