ANN ARBOR, Mich. – A number of graduate students who also teach at the University of Michigan went on strike this week to protest the university’s return to in-person learning amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Update Sept. 17, 2020: University of Michigan graduate students accept school’s latest offer, end strike
About 2100 members of the university’s Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) launched a strike Tuesday to demand better protections against COVID-19, in addition to new anti-policing measures.
GEO members are calling for the university to help make the campus safer amid the pandemic, requesting U-M to increase and randomize COVID-19 testing. The group is also requesting U-M to offer a universal remote work option in addition to making child care subsidies available.
“There’s just an overwhelming sense that a lot of people, a lot of other students, can’t fight back. So, so we feel like as a union it’s our responsibility to take to take that on for the broader community,” said Kate Castle, a PhD student and steward for the sociology department.
“The university is functioning like a business, rather than a public institution,” Castle added. “The way that they responded to COVID is very much like valuing profit over human lives.”
The strike comes as university officials warn of a potential COVID-19 exposure site. A U-M student who reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 visited the Moore Building on Sept. 1-4.
As part of their strike, GEO members are also asking to disarm U-M campus police and cut their budget in half, in addition to cutting ties completely with Ann Arbor police. RAs and U-M’s dining staff have also joined the strike in solidarity, though neither group is unionized.
Though initially planned to last only four days, the strike is planned to continue following GEO’s rejection of an initial offer from U-M.
A proposal by the university to end the strike was supported by GEO leadership, but members ultimately rejected the university’s offer saying that it did not meet their demands.
Earlier in the week, U-M released a statement stating that the strike violated GEO contracts and state law. It added that the union “has raised a number of issues that cannot be resolved as a matter of their contract or through a collective bargaining procedure.”
On Thursday, the university released a more detailed response to GEO’s demands after its offer was rejected.
According to the university, its proposal addressed a number of issues raised by GEOs including the availability of COVID-19 supplies, providing more details regarding testing through its Campus Maize & Blueprint website, clarifying how graduate student instructors teaching in-person can address face-covering non-compliance, and temporarily enhancing student child care subsidies for this academic year.
The university also stated that some of the union’s demands are not subject to bargaining and that they would need to be part of a discussion with the larger U-M community.
Although the university filed an unfair labor practice charge against the union, its update states that it would withdraw the charge and not penalize employees involved in the strike if an agreement can be made and the strike ends.
GEO members say the strike will continue until their demands are met.
The University of Michigan released the following statement related to the strike:
"It is the goal of the university, in every case, to meet the interests of all employee unions through discussion and negotiating to an agreement. When we work together to bring our community together, everyone benefits.
That is the reason we bargain with the unions representing our employees and that is what we have done in this instance with GEO. We have tried to come together by meeting the union’s interest.
Part of the agreement from our recent contract negotiations with GEO was a promise on the union’s part that its members would not strike and leave their students without instruction. It was only when they went against that promise that the university took additional action.
The university stands ready to continue discussions with GEO so that all students are able to continue their studies without further interruption.
The university has created a Key Issue page regarding the GEO strike with additional details about the university’s position that you may find helpful in any additional stories you may be writing. The Key Issues page can be found here: https://publicaffairs.vpcomm.umich.edu/geo-labor-union-strike/."