‘Demanding transparency should be obvious’: ‘U’ community protests administration as strikes continue

Saturday, September 12, 2020 - 11:41am

Protesters gather in front of the Union following a week of strikes.

Protesters gather in front of the Union following a week of strikes. Buy this photo
Madeline Hinkley/Daily

Speaking from the steps of the Michigan Union Friday afternoon, graduate student instructor Chris Campbell called on University of Michigan administrators to “do the right thing, probably for the first time.”

“Stop talking about the law and the cops, stop talking about listening to us,” Campbell said. “Listen to us about what it takes for a safe and just response to a pandemic and to policing on this campus.” 

Five days into the graduate students’ strike and amid other labor actions on campus, Campbell was one of hundreds of University students, faculty and staff who spoke out Friday against the administration’s response to COVID-19. Various open letters, speak-outs and protests occurred throughout the day, in-person and online.

The Graduate Employees’ Organization went on strike Monday, demanding more COVID-19 protections and a reduction in policing on campus. The group voted to reject an offer from the University administration Wednesday. 

The work stoppage has resulted in many canceled discussion sections and labs, which have forced undergraduate students to weigh whether or not to support the union’s movement. Faculty response to the strike has been mixed, though more than 500 have signed onto an open letter in support of GEO. 

The administration’s offer exploded, meaning GEO can no longer consider the proposal. The University filed an unfair labor practice charge against GEO Tuesday asking the state to order the union to “cease and desist from unlawfully striking or conducting a work stoppage.”

A few days after GEO initiated their strike, Residential Staff also voted to strike to demand increased safety measures against the virus, mostly impacting mailroom and lockout services for students residing on-campus. The labor action came after the resident advisers attended two town halls with University Housing Administration and sent University Housing a letter detailing their concerns.

Some student dining hall workers originally planned to walk off their jobs Friday but postponed the action at the last minute. The dining employees said they had faced threats of repercussions if they were to walk out, which the University Housing office has denied.

Friday afternoon, University President Mark Schlissel and Provost Susan Collins sent an email to the University community. They wrote that they felt “a deep concern for our university community — one that feels fractured, with some expressing frustration, anger and distrust.”

“Many of you are following the strikes on campus — by our graduate students and resident advisors — and are concerned about the issues they are raising,” Schlissel and Collins wrote. “Health and safety are fundamental human rights, and our foremost responsibility as leaders is to ensure that everyone, with no exceptions, feels that they can succeed and thrive in our community. We want our students to have the best educational experience possible.”

Zoom Speakout

A few hours before Schlissel’s email, members of the All Campus Labor Council, a group composed of unions representing University employees, and other community members met over Zoom to discuss the ongoing labor actions at the University. Representatives from GEO, the Lecturers’ Employee Organization, the Michigan Nurses Association and other unions were present.

Anne Jackson, a member of the University's Professional Nurses Council, said Michigan Medicine employees had to struggle to obtain proper safety equipment at the height of the pandemic. According to Jackson, nurses were initially only allowed to wear N95 masks during procedures which generated a high concentration of aerosols, even if other procedures required them to interact with residents who had tested positive for the virus.

“So we filed countless ‘assignment despite objection’ forms, and even filed a (Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration) complaint that took until July to get the right to wear an N95 with every COVID-positive patient,” Jackson said. “The employers' transparency on the available PPE (personal protective equipment) is still murky. Did we really need to reuse our N95 for up to five shifts during our search? I don't know. Was it safe to do so? I still don't know.”

Jackson also said the University’s budget cuts and job losses have harmed Michigan Medicine employees. She believes there was a lack of transparency about these changes.

“We've been hit really hard by the austerity measures undertaken by our employer,” Jackson said. “I see this institution using (the austerity measures) as a mechanism of fear and control. They have done this by announcing layoffs in April and then leaving folks hanging until mid-June. The fear and anxiety was palpable inside the hospital.”

LSA senior Soneida Rodriguez, an R.A., said she feels the University has not been transparent about their plans for the pandemic, despite the frontline role R.A.s play.

“As a student staff member, it is not uncommon for us to feel that we are the last to know about policies and to be removed from the decision-making process altogether,” Rodriguez said. “Despite the fact that we are the individuals who must live (with) the consequences of these decisions, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this feeling and this lack of control that I've often felt as a student staff member. Upon transitioning to my role as an R.A. this fall, it became immediately clear that the University’s policies and resources did not match my same level of dedication to public health.”

University alum Yael Ebenstein spoke in support of GEO. She said some of the union’s demands are practical safety measures that should have happened before the University reopened. 

“Demanding that the University has a robust plan for testing and contact tracing is not something that we should need to defend,” Ebenstein said. “It is obvious. It should be obvious. Demanding transparency should be obvious. Supporting our caregivers, international students and all graduate students who are facing ... decimated work prospects after this crisis is over ... should be obvious. Defending and protecting our most marginalized and vulnerable communities of color from an armed campus should be obvious.”

Ebenstein said she hopes the strike will urge University administrators to fully respond to GEO’s demands. 

“If this past summer hasn't clarified that to Mark Schlissel, and to everyone in leadership at this University, then let's hope that this strike will, because folks are tired of fighting, but they are so proud of this fight,” Ebenstein said. “And they will do so for as long as necessary.”

 

Michigan Union Protest

Several hours later, GEO, joined by R.A.’s, MDining workers and other University community members, rallied in front of the Michigan Union. About 250 people gathered while speakers raised issues ranging from testing shortages to the University’s relationship with Ann Arbor police through the Michigan Ambassadors program. 

The protest was led by a new student activism group called Students Demand Representation, which was formed in protest of administrative decisions throughout the summer such as reopening plans and the decision to raise tuition

The protesters marched from the Diag to the Michigan Union, chanting “Who’s got the power, union power.” Many crowd members held signs denouncing measures taken by administration regarding the safety of graduate students and R.A.s. 

The crowd then marched towards the Mosher-Jordan dining hall to show their support for MDining workers. About 15 MDining workers joined the crowd at MoJo to replace the last-minute cancellation of their walkout. 

LSA senior Bridgette Pollaski, a MDining employee, said she switched her shift so that she could participate in the walkout. She said MDining has been unable to enforce many safety guidelines.

“Permanent staff at Michigan are working a six-day mandatory workweek and also are very, very low on student staff, and without a significant student staff, the permanent staff is left to fill in the blanks,” Pollaski said. “We can’t enforce crowd control, we can’t enforce temperature taking, there’s no mandatory testing for student workers … we’re just forced to work extremely hard to fill in the gaps.”

Representatives from La Casa and Black Student Union also spoke, criticizing the Michigan Ambassadors program meant to manage student misbehavior and encourage students to follow public health guidelines. Since facing backlash for its ties to the Ann Arbor Police Department and the Division of Public Safety and Security, the program has scaled back but not entirely removed law enforcement involvement.

LSA senior Thomas Vance, a speaker from BSU, talked about how this year is reminiscent of both the flu pandemic of 1918 and the civil rights protests of the 1960’s, but said it is not an excuse for the University’s response to the current pandemic and to demands for racial justice. 

“If you reach out into (the University’s) vast vocabulary, the word unprecedented might come up,” Vance said. “At least that’s everyone’s favorite word right now, and it’s kind of aggravating to hear over and over.” 

He said multiethnic student organizations across campus are uniformly opposed to the Michigan Ambassadors program. 

“The BSU, the Arab Students Association, La Casa and the United Asian American Organizations are mad because the Michigan Ambassador program still exists,” Vance said. “We’re all mad, so let's all be collectively mad together.”

The University has refused to discuss GEO’s anti-policing demands — to defund and demilitarize DPSS, and to cut ties with AAPD and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — saying those demands fall outside of work-related matters that GEO can negotiate over. But state Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, praised the group for these demands.

“When it comes to racial justice, I want to thank you for including that as part of your platform,” Rabhi said. “It takes a lot of courage to go beyond what is in your economic self-interest and to figure out what is in the interest of justice.”

Daily Staff Reporters Varsha Vedapudi and Dominic Coletti can be reached at varshakv@umich.edu and dcoletti@umich.edu.