University of Michigan grad students strike for COVID-19, anti-policing demands

Robin Zheng

Posted September 14, 2020

Photo: U-M Graduate Employees’ Organization

During the 1975 month-long strike that garnered the University of Michigan Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) its first contract, agreements on affirmative action and non-discrimination were secured within the first week after more than half the undergraduate students boycotted their classes in solidarity.

Since then, GEO has maintained a consistent record of hard-fought, precedent-setting contract victories that prioritize the well-being of historically disadvantaged groups, both within and beyond its own membership. These include childcare subsidies (2002, after a one-day walkout), trans-inclusive and trans-specific healthcare (2006 onward, including significant gains in 2020), improved disability accommodations (2011), fertility treatments (2014, a benefit secured for employees across the university), and the creation of paid positions for graduate students performing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work (2017, after a strike authorization).

On the picket line in 2020, GEO members regularly invoke this history of “bargaining for the common good” (or “social justice unionism”) as part of their motivations for striking. Their demands for “A Safe and Just Pandemic Response for All” boldly address the two intertwined global crises that have come to define our times: the disastrous failure of our institutions to respond adequately to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the deadly state-sanctioned violence ceaselessly inflicted on communities of color by the police.

GEO’s COVID-19 demands include a more robust testing and contact tracing program, a universal right to work remotely, more flexible subsidies for parents and caregivers, and support for international students; while their anti-policing demands include disarming and demilitarizing campus police, reallocating 50% of U-M Division of Public Safety and Security funds, and cutting ties with the Ann Arbor Police Department and ICE.

This is an abolitionist strike, a historic development unimaginable (and, to many, unintelligible) just a few years ago. But over the span of a summer, the American populace has been confronted head-on with the glaring fact that the people in our society who perform the most valuable work of all — the essential work of caring for others — are also the most exploited of workers, who are disproportionately people of color. Instead of funding health, education, housing, jobs and benefits for all who need it, our collective wealth is poured into the prisons and police forces whose function is to protect private property and profits.

This obvious betrayal of the “Wolverine Culture of Care,” widely recognized across the campus and broader community, has been critical to GEO’s strike. One day after GEO celebrated Labor Day with news of their strike, over 40% of the undergraduate residential staff (residential advisors and diversity peer educators) declared their own strike. The day after that, undergraduate dining hall workers also announced plans to walk out.

These non-unionized student workers have witnessed first-hand how promised safety measures were ineffective (as when university-issued branded facemasks failed the “flame test” recommended by the university’s own residential staff training) and unenforced (as evidenced by shoulder-to-shoulder lines outside dining halls). At least one residential adviser was put directly in harm’s way in carrying out orders to interact with a COVID-positive student.

Such conditions appear even more outrageous when we recall that these workers represent precisely the population of financially and otherwise disadvantaged students — who must earn their room and board to stay in school — that deserve the most protection.

Thus, when the union claims that it is striking on behalf of the entire community, it is no mere slogan or rhetorical flourish. GEO members feel keenly that all the benefits and protections of being in a union, earned by prior generations of graduate student workers fighting tooth and nail before them, simultaneously produce serious responsibilities.

Right up until the strike authorization ballot went out, much of the membership remained unconvinced that it was the right course of action. A decisive factor in changing their minds was witnessing the concerns expressed by the U-M Faculty Senate, which is expected to hold a (mostly symbolic) vote of no confidence in the U-M administration on Wednesday, September 16.

Similarly, during a 4-hour virtual General Membership Meeting on the second day of the strike, in which a record 1,250 members deliberated over whether or not to accept the administration’s initial offer, a majority of the membership started off in favor of accepting the tiny concessions that had been delivered alongside a threat of retaliation. But by the end, the offer was rejected by a margin of about 2 to 1.

Many were swayed by the evidence of widespread community support as well as emotional testimonies from their fellow members, which included perspectives on being a member of color and being out on 5 AM picket lines in the pouring rain.

Perhaps still feeling the weight of contract negotiations settled earlier this year during which the university refused to bargain over planks on disarming and demilitarizing the campus police (as well as divestment from fossil fuels, ICE, and the private prison industry), members asserted that the meager wins on offer simply did not represent what and whom they are fighting for.

As part of a well-organized union, GEO members are capable of coordinating a large-scale action that (1) has a real shot at forcing concrete concessions, due to its disruptive potential, and (2) does not leave isolated individuals or groups to shoulder the challenges and risks of speaking out. Clearly, they see it as their duty to use this collective power — including their most effective weapon, the strike — on behalf of not only GEO membership, but all the other students, staff, and even faculty on campus who have been trying but not been able to make their voices heard.

GEO has worked assiduously to build transparent lines of communication with these wider constituencies, using a variety of innovative means. They wrote a letter to parents of U-M students, explaining: “We have voted to strike because it is the lesser of two disruptions to our students’ education… Many of our demands will directly improve the quality of your children’s instruction.”

They scheduled “virtual picket lines,” open to supporters anywhere, in which participants collectively made phone calls, sent emails, and reflected on the strike. They held a Town Hall for faculty, attended by 600 people and repeated a second time by request, after which meeting minutes were made publicly available.

They wrote up an FAQ in response to U-M leadership emails painting the strike as unnecessary and illegal, and conducted an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit. They created a link tree with easy access to information on joining pickets, donating supplies and money for the strike fund, and a live-updating compilation of media coverage.

When striking residential staff broke the news that COVID-positive students in quarantine were provided with virtually no supplies and given chips, nuts, and granola bars in lieu of hot meals, GEO organized donations of food and toilet paper.

The tremendous outpouring of public support for the GEO and residential staff strikes is a testament to how successfully their message has been understood by the local community (and beyond). Since the very first day of the strike, significant numbers of undergraduates have turned out for picket shifts beginning at 5AM, distributed flyers, offered strikers free produce, and, according to one touching account, pooled their money to buy sandwiches for the picket line.

A U-M faculty letter of support had 436 signatories by the time it was published in the student newspaper; indeed, a number of faculty themselves participated in the nationwide #ScholarStrike for racial justice that dovetailed with the first two days of the GEO strike.

U-M Facilities and Ann Arbor Area Transport Authority bus drivers honked their support when passing the picket. Community organizations like the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, Washtenaw County Poor People’s Campaign, Ann Arbor Tenants’ Union, and Huron Valley DSA published statements of support and sent their members to the pickets.

Strikers spontaneously started car rallies, faculty and students organized solidarity marches and rallies, and a virtual university-wide Speak-Out was organized by the U-M All-Campus Labor Council (ACLC) which prominently featured the voices of non-tenure track lecturers, nurses, and hospital workers across all three Ann Arbor, Flint, and Dearborn campuses.

On social media, GEO received support and donations from academic labor unions around the country, public figures ranging from Keaanga Yahmatta-Taylor to N. K. Jemisin to Rashida Tlaib, and Black Lives Matter Michigan — to which GEO replied: “We owe our momentum, especially for our anti-policing demands, to the history of Black-led abolitionist activism in Washtenaw County and beyond.”

Perhaps most significantly, a sizable number of unionized workers on campus construction sites, including electrical workers, bricklayers, plumbers and pipefitters, steelworkers, operating engineers, and the laborers’ union, walked off their job sites in solidarity, despite heated disagreement over GEO’s anti-policing demands.

When GEO members (AFT Local 3550) were confronted with the charge that teachers often cross other picket lines, they were able to point to their recent participation in a successful 7-day informational picket organized by IBEW Local 252 that forced U-M to reverse its decision to hire a non-union contractor (an attempt to “test the waters” after the 2018 repeal of prevailing wage legislation which was widely viewed as an attack on the wage rates of all the local building trades).

Still, they were forced to acknowledge that GEO must in turn do more on their part to show greater and more consistent solidarity with local unions — particularly if they hope for the broader labor movement to adopt their social justice demands. This is a lesson, of course, that all progressive movements would do well to learn.

There can be little doubt that we will soon see more attacks on labor unions; on U-M “workers, patients, students, and the community” (in the words of the ACLC); and on communities of color. On Friday, September 11, U-M filed an unfair labor practice in an effort to quell the strike rather than address the issues that led to it.

Meanwhile, GEO has signed up more than 350 new members and received over $40,000 in donations over the past week. As one member put it: “The historical conjuncture calls for boldness and people feel it in their bones.”

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the GEO strike, which was re-authorized over the weekend for another 5 days, at the very least they will have shown us the critical importance of “whole worker” solidarity in the darkest moments of crisis — and the ability of organized labor to stand on the frontlines of struggles for transformative social change. They will have given light and hope to supporters everywhere, a voice to the most vulnerable, and a powerful demonstration of what it means to fight back.

Robin Zheng is a University of Michigan alumna and former president of the Graduate Employees’ Organization.