Why we must support GEO: The historical power of strikes at the University

Wednesday, September 9, 2020 - 8:36pm

Image from the GEO strike at U-M, Sept. 9

Image from the GEO strike at U-M, Sept. 9 Buy this photo
Photo courtesy of Allison Engkvist/Daily

As students and faculty at the University of Michigan started their second week of the fall semester, a day was set aside to observe Labor Day. In a Twitter post on Monday, GEO wrote, “(Our) membership has authorized a strike, effective (Tuesday). This is a historic moment: we are striking at the beginning of the year, in the midst of a pandemic, to protect our whole community.” On Tuesday, Sept. 8, the day after the national holiday, members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization and their supporters convened before daybreak on the dark campus, with cardboard signs, raincoats and courage. As the early morning rain and thunderstorms caused the marked words of “U-M Makes Us Sick” to bleed, individuals popped open umbrellas and began the first day of their strike against the University’s inadequate reopening plans. On Wednesday evening, a historic number of GEO members congregated to discuss an offer presented to them by the University. With an overwhelming majority, membership rejected the offer, concluding that it inadequately addressed their demands and did not express any continued progress. 

During a deadly pandemic with cases rising in college hotspots around the country as a result of tens of thousands of students and faculty returning from around the globe, university environments and administrations were devastatingly unprepared. With approximately five months to plan for the fall semester after classes moved to virtual formats in mid-March, students, faculty and the greater Ann Arbor community hoped that the University and their public health experts would create effective and safe plans for the fall. Within the first two weeks of the majority of students being back on campus, many feel they have not. In an interview with The Daily, GEO Secretary Amir Fleischmann commented, “We’re striking over the University’s totally inadequate reopening plans and just the series of policies they put in place over the summer that’s making students and workers on campus unsafe.” 

Fleischmann continued, “It’s important because GEO is supporting the safety of everyone on campus. One of the reasons is the University’s totally inadequate testing policy, which doesn’t include randomized testing of asymptomatic people, which all experts, including the University’s own (experts), think is necessary for a safe campus.” 

In addition to striking in response to reopening plans, GEO is also concerned about the lack of communication and transparency from the University administration during the implementation of the Michigan Ambassadors program and resulting partnerships with the Ann Arbor Police Department and the Division of Public Safety and Security. After a particularly momentous summer that centered on the national protests against police brutality, violence and racial injustices, the University’s ploy to work with law enforcement to police students did not sit well with the community. Motivated by fear for livelihood, health, security and the future during a pandemic and civil rights movement, hundreds of people have gathered across campus to stand in solidarity with graduate students. 

However, in an email to undergraduate students on Wednesday morning, Susan M. Collins, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, wrote, “I strongly affirm the importance of student perspectives and student activism at the University of Michigan. The University has a long and celebrated history of its community members standing up for what they believe in through acts of freedom of speech and peaceful protest. 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. Nonetheless, the University’s team will continue to meet with GEO in good faith to resolve remaining issues.” 

In 1973, after a University policy was initiated that would charge non-resident graduate employees out-of-state tuition for the first time as well as a 24-percent tuition increase, graduate student employees founded the Organization of Teaching Fellows, deriving from a group that first started organizing as “teaching fellows” three years prior. The University administration refused to recognize the concerns of the teaching fellows unless they were certified by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, an election process that had already failed a few years before. OTF began loose associations with the American Association of University Professors, and discussions of a strike were underway but never came to pass. 

Shortly thereafter, in the summer of 1973, the teaching fellows merged with research and staff assistants of the University to found the Graduate Employees’ Organization. In an effort to speed up the process of gaining certification, GEO members compromised, only calling for their recognition as employees of the institution. With low stakes, the University agreed to GEO negotiations for official recognition and there was an immediate Michigan Employment Relations Commission certification election, allowing the organization to be certified on April 15, 1974. 

However, things did not continue to proceed smoothly for graduate student employees. In June 1974, negotiations for a contract — demanding nondiscrimination, better working conditions and fair wages — began and lasted for months without progress. A handful of months later, all methods of negotiation were enervated, and union members decided to strike in 1975. On Feb. 11, with no clue of how long the intensive picketing and striking would last, hundreds of GEO members gathered on campus with signs, gloves and warm jackets: the onset of a cold February. 

In the early days of the strike, more than half of undergraduate students boycotted classes and joined the picket lines to stand in solidarity with their teachers, peers and fellow academics. Within the first week, agreements on affirmative action and non-discrimination cases were achieved and local workers, such as the Michigan Brotherhood of Teamsters, recognized the importance of the strike and vowed to not cross picket lines. The Strike for a Contract lasted for a month and on March 14, 1975, GEO proved successful with its demands and achieved tuition reductions, pay raises and other benefits.

Page Two, The Michigan Daily. Thursday, February 6, 1975: Before the GEO strike began.

Page Two, The Michigan Daily. Thursday, February 6, 1975: Before the GEO strike began. Buy this photo
Photo courtesy of The Michigan Daily Digital Archives

The current strike against the University administration for the failure to enact proper safety protocols and an effective pandemic plan does not reflect new sentiments expressed by graduate students. Efforts for unionization arrived in a first wave throughout the 1960s and ’70s, where graduate students at public or state universities largely decorated the front of picket lines. Cedric de Leon, a professor and director of the Labor Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explained, “Graduate students have been unionizing for decades.” These unionizing efforts were already instituted at the University of California system schools and the University of Michigan when strikes at other universities around the country happened. In 2016, Columbia University graduate students won bargaining rights when the National Labor Relations Board reversed a decision from 12 years earlier at Brown University. More recently, in June 2019, University of Chicago graduate students touted marked signs with “Workers’ Rights are Human Rights” and chanted “recognize our election.” This strong history of graduate students linking arms, forming picket lines and taking up unionization efforts has proved critical to the situations GEO is faced with in the contemporary moment. 

Apart from explicit GEO strikes at the University, there have been many notable and revolutionary protests, sit-ins and strikes worth mentioning when examining the atmosphere surrounding today’s concerns. In June of 1962, a group of students met in Port Huron, Mich. to discuss their ideologies and goals for a new organization, later named the Students for the Democratic Society. Their ideologies heavily reflected the political agendas of the New Left, and their quasi-manifesto highlights the members’ opinions on American society, politics and military actions. The creation of SDS’s manifesto, denoted as the Port Huron Statement, was spearheaded by Tom Hayden, a student at the University that came from a working-class family. An article titled “Resistance and Revolution: The Anti-Vietnam War Movement at the University of Michigan, 1965-1972” outlines the impact of the Port Huron Statement. 

The authors wrote that the statement “described the existential crisis of many Northern, white students as they experienced the disillusionment of the world that they were growing up in. From the campuses of their mega-universities, the students and activists witnessed the growing risk of nuclear war that the Cold War caused and the continual violence in the white segregationists’ resistance to the civil rights movement. The students felt disenfranchised by the American Dream that encouraged consumerism and conformism while alienating people of color and the impoverished.” 

This manifesto facilitated the much-needed steam and momentum that student activists sought during the era of the Cold War and the Vietnam War. In a Smithsonian Magazine interview with former SDS president Todd Gitlin, the editor wrote, “The 2016 election brought student activism back into the spotlight. No student activist organization in U.S. history has matched the scope and influence of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the national movement of the 1960s.”

A few years later in 1968, on the day of the burial of Martin Luther King Jr., the newly founded Black Student Union at the University took over the Administration Building. After sitting inside for five hours while demanding more funding for Black students and higher rates of hiring for Black faculty members, the members of BSU had a discussion with then-President Robben Fleming and the lockout ended. The conversation between Fleming and the members resulted in the establishment of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies. 

However, two years after the takeover, rates of Black faculty hires and Black student enrollment had not improved. Students called for a strike, campuswide. The Black Action Movement — an alliance of the BSU, Black Law Students Association, Association of Black Social Work Students and Black students from the Department of Psychology and the Medical School — organized a campus shutdown that garnered national media coverage and recognition. It is reported that “Over 300 professors cancelled classes and many departments shut down. The strike was widely supported by non-BAM members, including white students. The U-M reached an agreement with BAM and issued a formal response to BAM's list of demands. Then-President Robben Fleming agreed to work toward a goal of 10% African American enrollment by 1973. The University did not reach this goal.” The spring of 1970 was the first occasion of BAM, and the movement is more broadly known as a series of protests that students held against the University. 

The corresponding protests took place in 1975 and 1987. The BAM II protests were over lack of progress by the administration from the first protest, while the BAM III protests stemmed from racist incidents of so-called humor, police brutality and injustices, racist flyers circulating on campus and concern over the racial climate on campus. In a retroactive report of the movement, Alan Glenn for the Ann Arbor Chronicle wrote, “the BAM strike became one of the few protests of that era in which the students could make a valid claim of victory.”

Black Action Movement I: Picketing in front of Hill Auditorium, March 20, 1970.

Black Action Movement I: Picketing in front of Hill Auditorium, March 20, 1970. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Jay Cassidy photographs from the Michigan Daily Alumni Photographers. Bentley Historical Library.

In all cases of activism, it is easy to conclude that success is not fully attainable without the support of strong-minded individuals. In so many fights for justice, the path individuals must take is not easily defined, and is, at most times, illegal in regard to contracts or civil obedience laws. In the case of graduate students or lecturers — who are considered public employees as they are employed by state universities — the practice of striking is illegal in many states, Michigan included. Act 336 of 1947, or the Public Employment Relations Act, prohibits strikes by certain public employees and disallows entitlement to representation for collective bargaining for those who do not have sufficient indications of an employer-employee relationship. 

Additionally, the contract that GEO maintains with the University prohibits actions that would disrupt normal operations, including striking. Robert Ovetz, a lecturer in political science at San Jose State University, wrote, “Although strikes by state employees … are illegal, that does not mean we will automatically lose as some claim. In fact, the 1975 Michigan strike was illegal but they could not be broken because of their widespread support from undergraduates, faculty and the Teamster delivery drivers.” Undeniably, this historical parallel and other victories by graduate students rest comfortingly on the shoulders of everyone on the picket lines this week. 

While speaking with The Daily, GEO Secretary Amir Fleischmann stressed the gratitude and emotional relief that he and other GEO members felt when they were joined by undergraduate students on the picket line. When asked how he feels about the strength of the movement, he replied, “So I would say the strike has been picking up steam much more so than a lot of the officers thought when we announced it on Monday. It’s doing so because of the support of other sectors of the University. We’ve seen a lot of support from undergrads. I was out there on the lines yesterday, 5 a.m. in the morning, pouring rain, total darkness and there were four undergrads with me. It is an incredible morale booster for us. We’ve seen them on the lines today, not attending classes; undergrads have spoken at our rallies; CSG endorsed our strike. There’s a lot of support. I think we also wouldn’t have the strength that we have if the faculty also weren’t so fed up with the administration. There is a vote of no confidence coming up against (University President Mark) Schlissel, next week. That would be a huge victory for us, if it happened.” 

This sentiment resonates with many: The acknowledgment from undergraduates — many of them students of GEO members — lifts the weight of uncertainty and exhaustion from the shoulders of all those who are holding strong on the line. They are not just striking for their own rights, but rather for the rights and protection of the entire Ann Arbor community. In a 2017 interview with The Daily, Nora Krinitsky, a member of the GEO bargaining team at the time, stated, “When graduate students are mounting a contract campaign, they’re not just asking for wages. Often that’s an argument that we get at the bargaining table. Our members are really motivated by questions of equity. They care about the marginalized population among our membership and care about ensuring their protections.” From COVID-19 testing procedures to demilitarizing DPSS and AAPD, GEO is striking in the name of workers’ rights, social and racial justice, public health and safety. 

A disruptive event this early into the semester — a semester already volatile and unprecedented — may cause many to be concerned with the lack of transparency, communication and structure presented to them from the University. While events are developing at a fast pace and consumption of news is, at times, especially overwhelming, it is vital — as students of higher education — that we support our academic peers and stand with GEO members in solidarity. This means making personal sacrifices that may seem individualistic and meaningless, but will undoubtedly contribute to the larger goal of the community and of the graduate students striking. Many students do not idealize missing class, especially at the beginning of a semester. However, these collective decisions of thousands of undergraduate students to boycott classes generates a whirlwind of disruption that cannot be ignored by those in power. 

During the GEO strike of 1975, undergraduate students boycotted classes just for the first week, and it was enough to accomplish nearly half of the organization’s demands. Standing in solidarity with GEO means not crossing the picket line — whether it’s physical or virtual. This means boycotting classes, emailing graduate students instructors with snippets of rapport and support, letting professors know where you stand, why you won’t be in class and volunteering to help GEO with anything they need. With the backing of undergraduate students, CSG, local unions and construction workers, resident advisers and faculty members, among others, the people who constitute the very heart and essence of the University should be able to achieve the protections and rights they unquestionably and wholeheartedly deserve.  

Brittany Bowman is the Editorial Page Editor and a senior in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts and can be reached at babowm@umich.edu.