‘Serious threats, not serious wins’: GEO members say they approved barebones proposal out of fears of retaliation

Thursday, September 17, 2020 - 6:44pm

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
Maddie Fox/Daily

After the Graduate Employees’ Organization voted to accept the University of Michigan’s proposal and end its strike, Rackham student Bec Roldan posted their feelings about the offer on TikTok.

“To be frank, it’s a pretty s— offer,” Roldan said on the popular social media app, where they have been posting updates about the strike since it began Sept. 8.

Roldan said in the TikTok that they were frustrated they had to accept the University’s second proposal — which was approved exactly one week after the first was rejected — because they felt the administration did not move enough on issues such as COVID-19 testing and anti-policing. 

But the looming threat of the University’s injunction, which University President Mark Schlissel filed with the Washtenaw County Circuit Court Tuesday in hopes of mandating the graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants GEO represents to return to work, ultimately pushed members to accept the proposal, despite feeling it did not meet enough of their expectations.

“Because it was very obviously a bad offer, there was not a single argument that was like, ‘This is a good deal, we should take it,’” Rackham student Dawn Kaczmar said. “All of it was weighing the risks of harm that would come to us if we didn't.”

GEO asked for the universal right to work remotely, added support for international students and diverted police funds when it began its strike last week. The strike, which had virtual and in-person picketing, and the union's demands were both shaped and prompted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Members of the union say they accepted the University’s proposal begrudgingly and because they felt like they were running out of options. In interviews with The Michigan Daily, multiple graduate students echoed the same sentiment: They would not have accepted the University’s proposal were it not for rising concerns of retaliation and an impending injunction ruling.

Regarding the accepted proposal, GEO spokesperson Leah Bernardo-Ciddio said the end result wasn't the union's preferred position.

“At this moment, we are all feeling a little bit upset and frustrated and devastated that we were backed into a legal corner, and we had to choose between our demands and the future of our union,” Bernardo-Ciddio said. “The commitment we made last night was to keep pushing in other ways while making sure our union survives and that it can continue to protect our most vulnerable members.”

However, Bernardo-Ciddio said the union's strike did allow for more progress on some of their key issues than they would have made otherwise.

"We did achieve more than we would have if we hadn't gone on strike or if we had accepted the offer last week," Bernardo-Ciddio said.

Under the accepted proposal, GEO did not win the universal right to work remotely or partial diversion of funds from the Division of Public Safety and Security, two of their major demands. The proposal does, however, offer increased allocations for child care funding and the right to cancel class if students refuse to comply with the campuswide mask mandate.

The University also agreed to assemble a task force that GEO will be involved with to evaluate policing at the University. The University will also create a panel composed of a representative from GEO, the University and one mutually agreed upon person to review requests to work remotely.

At the meeting Wednesday, 1,074 GEO members voted to accept the offer, 239 members voted to reject and 66 abstained. The majority of the GEO steering committee supported accepting the offer, citing concerns of retaliation and the possible harm the injunction could cause to the union.

The University sought a court injunction and temporary restraining order to get graduate students to resume teaching earlier this week. In the complaint, the University claimed it has suffered irreparable injury as a result of the strike, including disruption of vital functions and a hit to its 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.”

University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said the University worked with GEO to address all of their demands, claiming GEO membership’s overwhelming acceptance of the second proposal is proof that it was widely considered a fair offer. Fitzgerald also said the University never threatened criminal action or monetary damages against individuals.

“The whole point of this — the whole negotiations and all throughout — the University’s commitment was to getting GSIs back in the classroom,” Fitzgerald said. “We were able to accomplish that by listening carefully, I think, and responding appropriately to almost every issue that was raised by GEO.”

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, GEO 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.

The decision to accept the plan came down to if the union could afford to keep picketing amid the injunction, Rackham student Ryan Glauser said. One of his main concerns was GEO’s ability to fight an injunction, which raised the possibility that the union could be financially drained if the court sided with the University.

“The Graduate Employees’ Organization is more important as an institution than winning small things in the short term,” Glauser said. “Once we lose our union, the University is going to take those small things from us, because they don't have our trust.”

GEO’s strike gained traction on social media, which the union used as a way to circulate their message. The union presented the strike as a way to make everyone on campus safer, both in terms of protection from the coronavirus and from policing, as a national reckoning about racial justice surfaced following the death of George Floyd.

The strike served as a catalyst for other groups on campus. More than 100 resident advisers went on strike Sept. 9 — the day after GEO announced its strike — to demand additional personal protective equipment, enforcement of public health policies and hazard pay. Dozens of MDining student employees organized a work slowdown for two hours on Friday, with plans for a potential strike in the future. A hundred theatre and drama students signed a letter saying they would not attend class until School of Music, Theatre & Dance leadership agree to their demands regarding pandemic procedures.

GEO received a litany of support from different corners of campus, including the University’s chapter of College Democrats, labor unions whose members were commissioned to work on construction projects on campus and some faculty members. Central Student Government, the largest student government at the University, encouraged students to stand in solidarity with GEO and not attend classes for the duration of the strike.

Members said they went into the meeting Wednesday night excited and anxious to see what the University had offered the second time around. They said they felt like awareness and support of the strike was rising and that the University would feel greater pressure to meet their demands as a result.

But as the new proposal came to light at Wednesday’s meeting, Rackham student Katherine Wright said she realized the University had not made significant changes to what they proposed a week prior. The vote to accept the proposal, according to Rackham student Caitlin Posillico, was a result of “serious threats, not serious wins.”

Wright, Posillico and other members agreed that the University’s injunction became a game-changer for members. They described strong-arm tactics used by the University to corner them into accepting a plan they didn’t feel adequately addressed their demands.

“I realized that the University wasn’t going to budge on issues that we needed them to budge on, and that if we continued, we would be potentially putting ourselves in danger and our union in danger,” Wright said. “It just didn't seem like that was the best course of action, given that there are other ways that we could push them to do the work that would be less risky for the union.”

Ultimately, Wright said she felt resignation upon hearing the offer from the University, but she also felt pride. She, and other GEO members, said they felt like they used their power to hold the University accountable and ensure a safe environment for all members of the community.

While there was a divide as to whether GEO should continue the strike, members agree that this proposal isn’t the end.

One thing members said they left the strike with was a stronger coalition of different communities on campus and local unions. The awareness they gained from undergraduates is also a point of interest. Bernardo-Ciddio also said GEO members have been more active than ever in the last two weeks.

But even without a work stoppage, GEO will still be pushing for expanded COVID-19 testing and for changes to policing on campus, Rackham student Bethany Beekly said. They will also continue to support striking R.A.s and other groups demanding change on campus, she said.

“Just because we're changing tactics doesn't mean that we need to view this loss or view this as giving up,” Beekly said. “We're very much just shifting our focus to other avenues of progress, but by no means are we abandoning the demands on which we really haven't seen adequate movement.”

Daily News Editor Alex Harring can be reached at harring@umich.edu


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