Graduate students vote to extend strike until Friday

Sunday, September 13, 2020 - 6:48pm

Graduate students vote to extend strike following a week of picketing.

Graduate students vote to extend strike following a week of picketing. Buy this photo
Madeline Hinkley/Daily

The Graduate Employees’ Organization has voted to reauthorize its strike and continue picketing in protest of the University of Michigan’s reopening plans for the fall semester. The union announced the extension on Sunday night. 

The work stoppage will now run until Friday, with the potential for further reauthorization if the University does not meet the union’s demands. Eighty percent of union members who voted supported continuing the strike, according to GEO’s Twitter account. The union will protest outside of the University’s Detroit Center Monday morning, in addition to holding a general assembly in Ann Arbor on the Diag.

In an email to members announcing the results of the vote, GEO leadership highlighted the success of the first week of the work stoppage.

“Last week, we proved to University leaders, to the University community, and to each other that GEO is committed to fighting for a safe and just community, and we are not prepared to stop until we get it,” the email read.

Prior to the vote, GEO leadership unanimously recommended extending the strike, citing the fact that they do not have a new offer from the University or guaranteed protection from retaliation as well as the growing support they are seeing for their cause.

GEO, which represents more than 2,000 graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants, has been on strike since Tuesday. Their demands include increased safety precautions against COVID-19, support for international students and diversion of funds from the Department of Public Safety and Security.

GEO members and supporters have picketed every day this week both virtually and on campus. The group has received $45,000 in contributions to its solidarity fund. On Wednesday, GEO voted to reject an offer from the University they deemed insufficient.

Other University employees joined the protests, calling for increased safety measures for workers. Resident advisers organized a strike among themselves on Wednesday with a list of safety concerns in dorms. On Thursday, MDining employees announced their intention to walk out on Friday. They have since postponed the strike due to concerns about potential repercussions and are conducting a work “slow down” instead. 

GEO’s efforts have been met with support from the Lecturer Employee’s Organization, the University’s chapter of College Democrats and construction workers who opted not to cross their picket lines. On Tuesday, Central Student Government passed a resolution urging students to stand with GEO and observe the picket line by not attending classes. 

University faculty expressed mixed feelings about canceling classes during the strike. As of Sunday afternoon, more than 600 faculty members have signed an open letter to the University’s administration endorsing GEO’s strike. The letter criticizes the University for repeatedly stressing the illegality of the strike.

“The administration has been quick to characterize the strike as ‘illegal.’ But so were many of the strikes that make up the history of the labor movement worldwide,” the letter reads. “Strikes are by definition meant to disrupt business as usual. The Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) has made several important demands with regard to the administration’s reopening of the campus in the midst of the COVID pandemic.”

Provost Susan M. Collins addressed the strike in an email to undergraduates Wednesday, noting that GEO cannot negotiate issues not directly related to their employment and that it is illegal for public employees to strike in the state of Michigan. 

“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,” Collins wrote. “Nonetheless, the University’s team will continue to meet with GEO in good faith to resolve remaining issues.”

During a meeting last week, GEO leadership told members while the University is not likely to retaliate without warning, the University has filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the state of Michigan. The University also has the ability to cut pay and benefits and fine employees.

In a University-wide email sent Friday, President Mark Schlissel addressed the safety concerns raised by these protests.

“We recognize that we must do more to engage with and include members of our community as we grapple with the complex decisions to be made going forward,” Schlissel wrote. 

Schlissel’s email also summarizes the rejected proposal the University made to the GEO. He said the administration will pursue discussions with the GEO, adding that the University remains committed to diversity, equity and inclusion and will work to address policing issues. 

“Instead of a unilateral strategy – such as defunding the police – or addressing these critical issues through a bargaining contract that applies only to one group of employees, we endorse thoughtful engagement with the broader university community to surface both problems and opportunities,” Schlissel wrote.

He pointed to the University’s response to criticism of its Michigan Ambassador program as an example of such engagement. After pushback to the program, The University did not allow sworn or armed police officers to accompany student ambassadors.

Schlissel wrote that the University is dedicated to continuing communication with the community. 

“Recently, our public health experts met individually with members of GEO to address their concerns, and we plan to have similar avenues for faculty and staff to hear directly from these individuals,” Schlissel wrote. “This is just one example of how we are working to improve our dialogue with you.”

Daily Staff Reporters Angelina Little and Dominic Coletti can be reached at angelit@umich.edu and dcoletti@umich.edu.