ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Speaking from the steps of the Hatcher Graduate Library, the University of Michigan’s Graduate Employees' Organization held a press conference on Wednesday morning to address developments since the student union strike began last week.
Over 2,100 GEO members have been on strike since Tuesday, Sept. 8, protesting the university’s return to in-person learning.
GEO Vice President Erin Markiewitz spoke about the support the strike has received locally and nationally from community members and lawmakers
Markiewitz stated that GEO has sought to meet with university leadership since April regularly to discuss the university’s re-opening plan and said that the university has not provided “comprehensive information" related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Speaking over the sounds of construction and chanting picketers,Markiewitz used the temporary closure of a U-M dance building as an example of the university’s slow response to notify administrators which increases possible exposure. The building was closed on Monday after 10% of its population was made to quarantine. Department students and faculty were made aware of the situation through an email that circulated around the campus and online.
As part of its demands, GEO wants to see a 50% reduction in the U-M Division of Public Safety and Security (DPSS) and to cut ties with Ann Arbor Police Department and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Markiewitz touched on this demand by highlighting the growth of the Michigan Ambassador program, which uses student ambassadors and non-sworn DPSS employees to canvass the campus area to remind community members of social distancing restrictions and mask mandates.
“Policing is a public health issue and should not be employed to solve the problems our community faces,” said Markiewitz who then called the university’s legal response to the strike an “insult” to the labor history of Michigan.
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During the conference, undergraduate member of residence staff housing Zoey Angers spoke about the decision of some resident advisors to strike last week and gave examples of how staff members have not been notified of students who have tested positive for COVID-19.
A member of Michigan Dining and an anonymous staff member also spoke about their experiences relating to the university’s COVID-19 response and their concerns with testing and exposure.
Maren Spolum and Dr. Hannah Maier from Public Health will speak on the public health implications of GEO's demands. pic.twitter.com/qcTi6pZ3Ns— GEO at U-Michigan (@geo3550) September 16, 2020
U-M postdoctoral research fellow in Epidemiology Hannah Maier and public health doctoral student Maren Spolum each spoke on the public health implications of GEO’s demands. Maier touched the university’s policies and transparency around the pandemic and impacts on the communities surrounding the U-M.
Spolum stated that GEO’s anti-policing demands align with the American Public Health Association and the U-M commitment to a public health-informed semester. She discussed how policing is related to public health and how data from DPSS supports GEO’s demand to disarm police on campus.
“This data should make clear that a public health-informed semester necessitates changes to our funding on campus, and that includes changes to policing on campus," Spolum said, adding that ensuring safety and a culture of care can be done by investing in programs about health equity and student wellbeing.
Addressing the U-M’s claim that some demands are not bargaining items, GEO member Sasha Bishop went over each of GEO’s anti-policing demands. Bishop elaborated on why the student unions' demands address the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Professor Ashley Lucas, U-M associate professor of Theatre and Drama and former director of the Prison Creative Arts Project, said that the strike shows the legitimacy of faculty and student concerns
Lucas said that by withholding labor, the university is forced to listen to concerns and that the pandemic gives the union and U-M community members an opportunity to “make significant change if we stand together.”