Op-Ed: GEO strike gains momentum despite smears from ‘U’ administration

Friday, September 11, 2020 - 3:23pm

Banner at GEO strike

Banner at GEO strike Buy this photo
Photo courtesy of GEO members

Despite smears framing GEO as duplicitous and untrustworthy, a careful analysis of the timeline demonstrates that GEO has continually negotiated in good faith and it is the administration that has been operating recklessly.

On the evening of Sept. 7, the University of Michigan’s Graduate Employee Organization officially announced its intent to strike after fighting all summer for its platform of demands for a safe and just campus. University administrators immediately discredited GEO as hostile and noncompliant, responding with communication tactics that divert attention from the work stoppage platform in an attempt to sidestep any real engagement. At that moment, our movement entered public awareness and gained the solidarity of individuals and organizations across the country. For many, the intricate root system supporting this shoot of defiance remains invisible, but it should come as no surprise that this unrest did not develop overnight. The administration’s words ring hollow when we take a closer look at the timeline of events leading up to GEO’s decision to strike. This University’s administration has made a habit of sweeping the concerns of students, faculty and staff under the rug, prioritizing financial gain over the well-being of our community and the grossly mismanaged reopening plan is no exception. The difference is that the stakes of the current moment could not be higher. 

Beginning in late April, the administration gave GEO leadership the run-around in an effort to sideline good-faith negotiations. According to GEO Member Yael Kenan, the union’s attempts to engage with the University’s COVID-19 reopening plans were bounced back and forth between the Rackham Graduate School and Academic Human Resources, who both threw up their hands and declared that our demands were outside their wheelhouse. They preempted any criticism of the University’s policies by declaring our critical ethical concerns beyond the scope of our bargaining contract. These included the universal right to remote work without documentation, policing and surveillance concerns and cutting ties with the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, among others. 

To add to the frustration, the University was determined to discuss its reopening plan without ensuring that graduate students had a seat at the table. “It would literally cost them nothing to include us,” says Kenan. Despite the fact that inviting a GEO or other graduate student representative to these meetings presented minimal risk or inconvenience to the University, Kenan says the administration refused point-blank to entertain our requests to this end. As the weeks passed, it became increasingly clear that bargaining was not going to yield the desired outcome. 

The combination of exclusion and relentless filibustering found GEO with little choice remaining but to withhold labor. The first public mention of the intent to go on strike in the event that our platform would go unaddressed appeared in The Michigan Daily on Aug. 31, and GEO leadership had notified uncooperative University administrators of this possibility many times in the weeks and months preceding as alternative options began to be exhausted. In light of all this, a panicked email from Provost Susan M. Collins at 11:17 p.m. that night made the utterly absurd claim that they have “only learned today” of GEO’s intent to strike. It reveals that she and her fellow administrators are thoroughly out of touch with what is going on with their students, or else willing to lie through their teeth in an attempt to save face. Either option is equally damning. 

Timeline leading up to the 2020 GEO strike

Timeline leading up to the 2020 GEO strike Buy this photo
Graphic courtesy of GEO members

Overwhelmingly, the University’s response has mischaracterized GEO’s decision to strike, our demands and prior steps GEO had taken to avoid the strike. The rhetoric used in both internal and external coverage of the protests, rallies and work stoppage has sought to paint the University administrators as victims who have been working tirelessly with unreasonable graduate students, only to be blindsided when they supposedly learned on Labor Day, Sept. 7, that labor stoppages would commence the next day. Yet at that point, GEO leadership had already spent months engaging in a fruitless and infuriating dialogue with the University. This is by no means a new problem: The University’s decentralization of decision-making consistently obscures who is responsible for a given issue, rendering failures in communication and enforcement common. 

One deceptive statement is that the University is “not aware of any graduate student who is being required to teach in person against their expressed preference.” Collins made this claim in her email on Labor Day, and it has been cited repeatedly as evidence that the rationale behind this strike has no foundation. Unfortunately, it simply is not true. Graduate Student Instructors, who will remain anonymous out of fear of retribution, have come to GEO expressing concerns about in-person work, including scenarios in which the student was assigned a teaching placement requiring in-person work despite explicitly requesting a remote-only assignment. Without a universal right to work remotely, we cannot guarantee that all are in a secure position to make the appropriate decision for themselves free of the threat of retaliation. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Collins’s claim is based on a survey conducted in early July when the fall reopening plan was not yet public. 

Moreover, that survey had tiers for who “deserved” remote work based on subjective values. It is not a valid measure of how GSIs and other instructional staff currently feel about in-person teaching. GSIs have told us they feel coerced into “volunteering” for in-person work out of a sense of altruism, given the University’s messaging regarding in-person teaching as a “shared responsibility,” or fear of retaliation from their faculty and departments. This is especially true for masters’ students, who do not have funding guarantees and express severe concerns about retaliation. 

If everyone who wants to work remotely is already allowed to do so, then the University should make it a policy since it supposedly would not change anything. Meeting this demand is low-hanging fruit, yet the administration has not offered the universal right to remote work nor provided reasoning beyond baseless assurances that it is unnecessary. Their reticence belies their true concern: that the option for universal remote work would likely result in fewer in-person classes. Universal remote work is only one of many planks in the GEO strike platform; the discourse presented diverts attention from the others while appearing to discredit the platform as absurdly positioned and divides our community. 

Furthermore, the University administration claimed that it only had $1.3 billion available for COVID-19 response — a claim later undermined by an independent audit. GEO’s COVID Caucus wrote an open letter to the administration that was signed by more than 1800 individuals and major student organizations and presented to administrators on May 8. It was dismissed out of hand on the grounds that the requests were not “financially feasible.” GEO repeatedly sought financial transparency around the response, and on May 13, the administration was presented with a second petition circulated by the Huron Valley Area Labor Federation that also called for greater transparency. This time the administration did not even deign to respond. 

By May 28, the independent audit of the University’s finances revealed a sum of approximately $6.7 billion was in fact available for COVID-19 response and could easily cover all of the necessary spending required to meet our COVID-19 related demands. Once again, this came as a disappointment but not a surprise. Despite this institution’s routine deployment of scarcity narratives to justify austerity policies, the evidence from the independent audit revealed that this is simply not the case.

The Board of Regents were charged with oversight of various committees that drafted reports on safely reopening the University in the midst of the pandemic. The Coordinating Committee on Instructional Planning drafted a report on reopening on May 29, and about a week later, on June 8, the Ethics and Privacy Committee finalized their own report on reopening. It is worthwhile to note that the decision to open campus preceded the formation of the Ethics and Privacy Committee: “We were not tasked with assessing the ethics of whether or not to reopen. Instead, we were asked to assess the ethics of different measures that might be used if we reopened,” one member of the committee explained in an internal email to the authors. 

As such, their report highlights issues like the inadequacy of symptom-based screening alone, which would fail to catch the 25%-40% of those infected who never develop symptoms, and the necessity of “testing (for viral RNA or proteins) to determine prevalence of the infection, identify infected individuals who are symptomatic or asymptomatic carriers, identify contacts, and inform necessary mitigation is essential to an organized response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” That same member reports being disappointed in the decision to reopen, but still “willing to give them the benefit of the doubt at that relatively early stage that all needed safeguards would be in place.” The member gave credit to the administration for forming the committee at all, though it was clear they were strictly advisory.

But as the summer wore on, the University doubled down on its reopening plan even as the national situation deteriorated. During the month of July, University President Mark Schlissel responded noncommittally to personal emails from at least one member of the EPC as well as a collectively-written follow-up letter that strongly implied reopening was no longer feasible. Ultimately, he brushed them aside by stating he appreciated their concern, but the University intended to proceed with reopening anyways. “In retrospect, my personal opinion is that they were always defaulting towards re-opening, barring some local pandemic eruption or shut-down order from the state. I got the impression that ‘preserving jobs’ was always a major consideration,” said a member of the EPC in an internal email to the authors. 

They add that they were “utterly appalled” by Schlissel’s abrupt “change in rhetoric from ‘what would be the ethics of testing people’ to ‘testing is science fiction.’” The EPC member believes this testing paradigm being implemented “is driven by the realization that to do it right would take a lot of human and financial resources, and they feel they are on the edge of a fiscal precipice. So they are trying to do COVID control on the lowest possible budget … and things are falling through the cracks.” One of the community’s biggest concerns is the inadequacy of opt-in only testing. The widely-cited study by David Paltiel and Rochelle Walensky at Massachusetts General Hospital also stated that “universities need to test two or three times a week to keep an outbreak from getting out of control.” Their group “failed to find even one plausible circumstance under which a strategy of simply waiting for symptoms to emerge would be sufficient to contain an outbreak” after they had run “thousands of scenarios” in their model.  

Why, then, has Schlissel settled for a minimalist, voluntary testing policy? 

Schlissel claims his COVID-19 plan is on par with other universities, but has refused to show his evidence to allay concerns. From the earliest stages of planning for reopening this fall, the University has been squirrely at best with the evidence supposedly backing our reopening plan. This comes in stark contrast to the transparency with which other institutions, such as the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, have disclosed the information and models they used to arrive at a decision for the fall. Many, such as Yale University, also have clear contact-tracing programs in place so that they can react expediently to changing circumstances. The Leaders and the Best appear to have no such plan in place. Schlissel has given us a plan that seems to run counter to very clearly evidence-based approaches yet expects us to simply accept its legitimacy without seeing any of the science. In fact, in the pitiful offer made to GEO on Sept. 9, the second day of the strike, the administration admitted they “do not have a model that predicts infection rates with sufficient reliability and cannot commit to providing these data as we are uncertain when or if it will become available.”

Again, why does Schlissel ignore public health experts and even the models of comparable institutions? Regent Ron Weiser, the chair of the board, Trump mega donor and founder of the Ann Arbor real estate company McKinley Associates, Inc., has recently come under criticism for his simultaneous association with McKinley and decision-making power on the board, a factor which he has hotly contested the relevance of. 

The University’s desire to increase revenue through tuition and maintain their “brand” has been prioritized over the obvious health and safety benefits of a guaranteed right to universal remote work. The University has placed the financial burden of the COVID-19 pandemic on its students, faculty and staff. 

On April 20, the University announced a salary freeze for most faculty and staff through the end of the 2020-21 budget year, ostensibly to help cover COVID-19-related costs. Additionally, on June 29, the Regents approved a 1.9 percent tuition increase for all students, matching the 2019 increase for in-state students. Students also face an ever-growing list of fees, including a $500 international student fee imposed in 2019, and a $50-per-term COVID-19 fee to “assist in covering the costs of testing and other health and safety-related services associated with the pandemic,” which is on top of the existing health service fee. Worse still, as students tried the University-issued face coverings supposedly purchased with this “COVID-19 fee,” they found to their horror that they do not even pass the “flame test” of efficacy and as such do very little to prevent the transmission of disease via respiratory droplets and aerosols. 

The 5%-10% pay cuts taken by a handful of the University’s top officials, including Schlissel, have a performative ring: These executives all make more than $300,000 per year, and a slightly higher cut of their exorbitant salaries could cover the COVID-19 fee for students multiple times. To top it all off, students were forced to agree to pay full tuition with no refunds in the event that the campus is shut down mid-semester. The University did choose to implement a form of tuition insurance in case a student is forced to withdraw from the semester, showing some interest in students' financial security in the inevitable event that they fail to protect them from illness. However, we think this is too little, too late. 

As far as we can see, the University puts its pockets over its people, while discrediting the public health concerns voiced by its graduate students and their allies. When it comes to the anti-policing items of GEO’s platform, which GEO member Emma Soberano explained are issues “intimately connected” to COVID-19, the University has yet to meet GEO at the table. University administrators refuse outright to even address legitimate concerns over excessive police militarization and violence. 

The University community has long been voicing these concerns, especially around issues of bloated police funding, as well as University ties to federal agencies. In 2016, LSA formally suggested to the University that police presence on campus was overly militarized and posed safety concerns to students who are Black, Indigenous or people of color. 

In 2019, the Carceral State Project, one of the University’s own research initiatives, also found that the militarization of campus police, among other policies, contributes to a lack of safety in the University community. They advised the University to address their continued policies and funding of DPSS in light of empirical research demonstrating its inefficacy and negative impacts. As of July of this year and in the context of mass movements mobilizing against police violence, the Carceral State Project has renewed its calls for “U-M’s approach to communities that face disproportionate criminalization, policing, and incarceration… (to) be radically restructured, and that we ought to open and/or revisit discussions around our relationship to the DPSS and the AAPD.” The University’s continued dismissal of these evidence-backed concerns from a multitude of voices in our community points to a vested interest in maintaining the status quo: the evisceration of services, bloated administration and racist and classist power dynamics.

We join those in the University, local and national community in demanding that the police be demilitarized and defunded. We see these demands as inseparable from the rest of our platform, as the danger police present to Black lives is every bit as much of a public health crisis as the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite being beyond the scope of our contract, we believe we have precedent to make these broader demands since GEO has been involved in broader actions from its inception. The organization was founded amid and part of the anti-war movement during the 1970s. 

Furthermore, we believe our action on this front is imperative given the broader context of racial violence atop a historic pandemic we face this semester. University administration would have us believe we are insulated in our ivory tower while they make empty statements of solidarity, such as its affirmation that Black Lives Matter and its condemnation of white supremacy, among many others made this summer — including a statement by Schlissel. GEO has taken on considerable risks to ensure that someone holds the University accountable to these otherwise toothless statements. 

These days, the #MichiganDifference appears to equate to willful ignorance and scapegoating of graduate students to cover up administrative corruption. Despite, or perhaps in part because of, the University administration’s best efforts to make us the villains of this story, we have seen an outpouring of support from student organizations, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and other labor unions in Ann Arbor. GEO continues to #StrikeForSafeCampus in the conviction that our university must be held to the highest standard of values, ethics and treatment of its community.

Many members of GEO contributed to the writing of this article but insist that they are not speaking on behalf of the organization. The authors of this article are represented as concerned GEO members and can collectively be reached at geo.oped.adhoc.committee@gmail.com.