Members of the Graduate Employees Organization and Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality joined forces March 11 in a walk-out to stop students from going to class and workers from working in hopes of sending a message of solidarity to the University.
According to chants heard before the closing rally at the Literature, Science and Arts Building, GEO wants a contract, and they want it now. Though the mission sounds simple, GEO members have said the contract they are fighting for is extraordinary.
GEO members estimated that the one-day-long strike, which began with a picket at the Life Sciences Institute construction site at 7 a.m., drew about 500 union members and 300 undergraduates to the picket lines. The strike also managed to expand past University walls to undergraduate students at Michigan State University, some of whom chose not to attend classes to show support for their graduate employee union, which formed last year but has yet to sign a contract. The strike ended after 11 hours.
“We are really happy with the turnout today. All over campus, there is a lot of noise, a lot of energy,” GEO organizing committee member and Rackham student Rachel Meyer said. “I think we’ve done a good job shutting down the University. If you look around, the parking lots are empty, the common spaces are empty and there aren’t a lot of students walking around between classes.”
GEO President and Rackham student Cedric de Leon said many of the construction sites were also abandoned by noon. University Spokeswoman Julie Peterson said work continued despite the picket lines.
Peterson said financially, the University was not grossly affected by the walk-out and the slowed construction, but no cost estimate could be made.
“The impact from a one-day strike is not enormous. Disruption of classes was kept to a minimum,” she said. “It was what was expected. There was certainly some public message made.”
De Leon said the final decision to hold the strike happened after negotiations ended at 4 a.m. Union members said despite the advances made during the weekend, core issues, such as child care and wages, were not discussed. Members said they would not forget about those issues because it is important the new contract meets the needs of every person in GEO.
“There are still groups out there that need our help. We will stay out as long as we need to make sure everyone gets a better contract,” GEO member and Rackham student Irfan Nooruddin said at the closing rally, adding that the GEO will not back down on the remaining issues. “Issues of justice and principle can never be compromised.”
During the walk-out supporters stood near building entrances in an attempt to speak with anybody who entered them. Picketers said they understood students’ dilemmas about not attending class, but not all excuses were convincing.
“We’re getting the impression that some professors are giving quizzes just to spite the union,” Rackham student Wojciech Beltkiewicz said. “A lot of students have been saying they have quizzes.”
Kinesiology senior Dan Eldred said he attended his classes in Angell Hall despite his personal feelings about crossing the picket line.
“I did feel a little guilty. I didn’t make eye contact with them when I passed them because I knew that they would question me. I wanted to avoid being bothered,” he said.
Other students, including LSA junior Martina Graef, who entered Angell Hall from an entrance connected to the Diag, said she did not run into any picketers at all.
“There were students supporting the GEO out there but there was really no picket line that I had to cross,” Graef said, adding that a picket line would not have changed her decision to attend class. “I would have crossed it. … I know that there is a strike, but if the professor is holding class, I’m still responsible for the material.”
Department of Public Safety Spokeswoman Diane Brown said the strike ended without any legal misfortunes.
“The picketers (were) cooperative and followed the officers’ requests without complaint. We simply asked for voluntary compliance and did not have to take any additional measures,” she said.