On Aug. 31, the University of Michigan welcomed students back to campus for the start of the fall semester. One week later, on Sept. 7, the Graduate Employee’s Organization (GEO) voted to authorize a strike in response to the university’s reopening plans.
The GEO is the labor union that represents graduate student instructors (GSIs) and graduate student staff assistants (GSSAs) at the University of Michigan. Their “Demands for A Safe and Just Pandemic Response for All” fall under two categories: COVID-19 Demands and Anti-Policing Demands.
For COVID-19 demands, the GEO called for more robust plans related to testing, contact tracing and campus safety; the right for all graduate employees to work remotely; care subsidy for parents and caregivers; increased support and the repeal of extra fees for international students; and degree extensions, emergency grants and more flexible leases for graduate students.
As far as anti-policing, the union demanded that the university provide a disarmed and demilitarized workplace, defund the Division of Public Safety and Security (DPSS) and cut all ties with the Ann Arbor Police Department (AAPD) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The announcement of the strike and the GEO’s demands came after over a month of impact bargaining between the GEO and the university regarding their members’ rights while teaching this school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. That bargaining was largely unsuccessful, and according to members of the GEO, the university has been unwilling to negotiate on many of the issues highlighted by the union, particularly those related to anti-policing.
Soon after announcing their work stoppage, the GEO received support from several groups across campus. The University of Michigan’s Lecturers’ Employee Organization (LEO) released a statement explaining their solidarity with the GEO, as did the university’s chapter of College Democrats. The University of Michigan Central Student Government Assembly also voted in favor of a resolution supporting the strike and calling for university administrators to meet the GEO’s demands.
Only a day after the GEO strike began, over 100 of the University of Michigan’s resident advisers (RAs) voted to begin their own strike due to similar concerns over the university’s COVID-19 policies.
In a press release, RAs summarized their experiences with the university’s policies regarding dorm move-in, pre-arrival COVID-19 testing, dorm guests, masks and PPE, social distancing and Maize and Blueprint, the University of Michigan’s COVID-19 case tracker. They highlighted many of the problems with the university’s plans to house students in dorms despite the pandemic, saying “ResStaff have been shocked and dismayed by the ineptitude displayed by the University in many areas of housing and student life.”
Like the GEO, RAs also announced their own list of demands in their press release including access to regular testing for all ResStaff, enforcement of social distancing and masks in residence halls and dining halls, better communication and transparency between ResStaff and the university, hazard pay for ResStaff and more.
Despite the GEO’s strike receiving resounding solidarity from other groups on campus, the University of Michigan’s administration has not been nearly as supportive.
Immediately after the GEO announced that their vote to strike had passed, university spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald released a statement stating that the GEO’s strike is illegal and violates both state law and the current GEO contract.
Susan M. Collins, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, wrote a confusing letter to University of Michigan graduate students in which she expressed support for student activism while simultaneously reminding them that a strike would be illegal and requesting them to continue working despite the union’s decision.
On Sept. 8, the first official day of the GEO strike, the University of Michigan filed an unfair labor practice charge against the GEO with the Michigan Bureau of Employment Relations asking the commission to order the GEO “to cease and desist from unlawfully striking.”
Later, after the GEO rejected a deal from the university that addressed some, but not all, of their COVID-19 concerns and refused to address their anti-policing demands, university administration threatened to take further action against graduate students.
When the GEO voted to extend their strike through Sept. 18, university president Mark Schlissel said “the University of Michigan can no longer allow to continue the ‘profound disruption to the education we’ve promised our undergraduate students’” and approved seeking a preliminary injunction from Washtenaw County Circuit Court that would force GEO members to return to work.
On Sept. 16, after facing multiple actions and threats against GEO members from the university, the GEO voted to accept an offer from the administration and return to work immediately. If the offer hadn’t been accepted and the court ruled against the GEO, the union would be required to end the strike and members who continued striking could have faced fines of $250 per day or arrests.
Overall, the GEO strike, the RA strike and the messages of solidarity they received from other groups on campus highlight the disapproval over the University of Michigan’s COVID-19 policies and reopening plans felt by students and faculty across campus.
University of Michigan students and faculty alike have expressed doubts over the adequacy of the university’s plans for COVID-19 testing and quarantine housing, as well as confusion over the apparent lack of transparency in communication from university administrators.
Currently, much of the university’s plan to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak on campus seems to rely on individual students upholding the so-called “Wolverine Culture of Care” rather than the university making adequate large-scale efforts as an institution.
Although a modeling study published by researchers from Harvard and Yale found that “symptom-based screening alone was not sufficient to contain an outbreak,” the University of Michigan COVID-19 testing plan only requires testing for symptomatic students and close contacts of identified cases. The university currently has no plans to require widespread testing of asymptomatic students across campus apart from their voluntary surveillance testing program that only tests up to 3,000 people per week.
At a university with over 45,000 students, testing only 3,000 students per week simply doesn’t seem adequate, and both faculty and students agree with that sentiment. An open letter to the University of Michigan Regents and Executive Officers addressing concerns over the university’s reopening and COVID-19 testing plans has been signed by hundreds of students and faculty members.
The university’s response to the GEO’s concerns and demands, as well as their response to the ongoing resident advisors’ strike has also been disheartening. They imply that the university is more interested in keeping the fall semester as normal as possible rather than addressing widespread concerns over whether or not the university can do so without putting the health and lives of their students and faculty at risk.
Deciding how to reopen college campus in the middle of a pandemic is no easy feat, and it’s one that all universities across the United States have been struggling with. At the University of Michigan, the first few weeks of the semester have been filled with turmoil that makes the uncertainty felt by students and faculty regarding their safety on campus extremely clear.
So far, the university’s response to unrest among student groups has only deepened the lack of trust between administrators and students. Moving forward, hopefully administration will acknowledge the pitfalls in their reopening plans, work toward rebuilding their relationship with students and implement improved policies aimed at guaranteeing a safe and healthy semester for the entire University of Michigan community.