Resident advisers reach deal with University, will end strike Tuesday morning

Monday, September 21, 2020 - 10:11pm

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Dominick Sokotoff/Daily

After nearly two weeks of striking for increased COVID-19 protections, Residential Staff members voted to accept an offer from the University of Michigan administration Monday night. ResStaff will officially end their strike and begin their duties Tuesday at 7 a.m. 

ResStaff includes residential advisers and Diversity Peer Educators. ResStaff decided to strike in solidarity with the Graduate Employees’ Organization after administrators were unresponsive to ResStaff health and safety concerns. They were also upset that many Housing regulations were not enforced during move-in. 

The decision to end the strike and accept the terms passed in a near-unanimous vote, with 174 agreeing to the offer and 2 against. The striking ResStaff members were presented with the offer Sunday afternoon. 

LSA senior Zoey Angers, an R.A., said she is relieved ResStaff members and University Housing were able to come to an agreement.

“We weren’t sure if we were ever going to get there,” Angers said. “To finally get some level of respect from upper Housing was really exciting.”

In response to demands for more testing, all ResStaff members will have priority in the University’s weekly surveillance COVID-19 testing program but will receive no additional testing. Administrators also granted ResStaff a formal statement of no retaliation against anyone participating in the strike, per ResStaff demands. 

“As COVID testing availability and guidelines continue to evolve on campus, we may be able to revisit testing protocols in the future,” the offer reads.

To address concerns about inadequate personal protective equipment, each ResStaff member will be given a box of 50 masks every 45 days. According to the offer letter, ResStaff members should have in total four face masks and bandanas, a box of disposable masks, hand sanitizer and a plastic face shield from previous discussions. 

The ResStaff strike disrupted mailroom operations and lockout services in many residence halls on campus. Per the accepted offer, Housing plans to hire additional student employees to cover mail rooms and community desk shifts “to allow ResStaff to focus more fully on rounds, and other expected duties.”

In response to demands for hazard pay, ResStaff members will be offered a one-time payment of $200 in Blue Bucks. In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald clarified this was not hazard pay.

“University Housing is not offering a ‘hazard pay’ payment,” Fitzgerald wrote. “It is offering $200 in Blue Bucks per ResStaff member in recognition that it will take some time to hire student employees to cover the mail room and community center duties.”

The University left ResStaff demands for greater enforcement of social distancing guidelines unaddressed. In a previous email to ResStaff, Housing Director Rick Gibson explained the administration’s rationale in its enforcement of COVID-19 policies.

“At the same time, it is fundamental to our shared value of restorative justice not to impose automatic measures out of a ‘three strikes’ rule or similar punitive system,” Gibson wrote. “Each person’s situation dictates the outcome and next steps. Given the gravity of COVID-19, that means contract termination may be appropriate after one or two serious violations.” 

To address ResStaff concerns regarding communication and transparency, Housing resumed daily email updates on Sept. 14 after stopping them Sept. 4. The COVID-19 dashboard was also updated to break down case numbers by residential hall. 

According to the offer letter, a dashboard will be created to break down individuals going into quarantine by the floor and building they are from. The offer letter said the new tool would be implemented within two weeks of ResStaff going back to work.

ResStaff created a ResStaff Council composed of representatives from each residential hall when the strike first started. According to Angers, the ResStaff Council held their first meeting with the Housing Administration on the afternoon of Sept. 16. The GEO strike ended later that same day.

Angers said Gibson and Jaime Cox, human resources director of Student Life, were present at the meeting. The council attended the meeting expecting to negotiate their demands.

However, Angers and another R.A., Engineering graduate student Max Lipari, said Gibson explicitly threatened to fire ResStaff members who continued to strike at the meeting. Lipari recalled much of the council leaving the meeting feeling scared about facing housing and food insecurity if they were to lose their jobs. 

He also said he felt Housing was not truly listening to their concerns during the meeting.

“When we started negotiations on Wednesday, it was very apparent that Housing was treating us like children and not taking us seriously,” Lipari said. 

In an email to The Michigan Daily, Daniel Henne, director of communications for Student Life, said “Mr. Gibson did not threaten to fire the RA staff.” 

“When asked by the RAs in the meeting to provide a non-retaliation guarantee for anyone currently on strike, he responded that he could not provide an indefinite guarantee,” Henne wrote. “He reiterated that it was his desire to work with all RAs to get individuals back to work for the safety and care of all residents. He clarified that if a constructive resolution could not be found, leadership may have a decision to make about how to move forward.”

Despite the scare, Angers and Lipari said ResStaff pushed on because they knew the University could not fire the entire ResStaff. They said a change happened two days later when Housing set up another meeting with the council.

“Housing started taking real action and stopped all of this nonsense that they have been stringing us along for months (such as) telling us they were listening to us but not taking action,” Lipari said.  

As the negotiations went on, Angers said ResStaff began to feel more comfortable after seeing Housing take more significant steps. Angers said two associate vice presidents from Student Life attended negotiations Sunday, and Lipari recalled Gibson taking a break from their meeting to make a call to see what course of action could be taken.

To ensure conversation continues after the strike ends, a Residential Experience Council of ResStaff members will be officially created, according to the offer letter. The council will be reviewed at the end of each academic year by both ResStaff members and Housing to determine if the council will continue or dissolve.

ResStaff have talked about creating a union in the future. According to the offer letter, the new council does not constitute a union.

“Finally, in regards to the request that this Council be incorporated into a union in the event that ResStaff choose to form one, we cannot commit to make an agreement,” the offer reads. “We would need to honor the appropriate process under Michigan law or Regents’ resolution for establishing a collective bargaining unit.”

Angers reflected on the process ResStaff has been through to advocate for themselves. She expressed pride that their strike was able to bring about change.

“No one could have imagined ResStaff having a real voice in our employment,” Angers said. “We’re hoping that some of the things that we won in the strike will continue to improve conditions for ResStaff, even outside of the pandemic.”

Daily Staff Reporter Francesca Duong can be reached at fduong@umich.edu.


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