UM graduate employees issue demands, vote on strike authorization

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Graduate employees at the University of Michigan are demanding school officials address concerns regarding the ongoing pandemic and campus policing.

The Graduate Employee's Organization Local 3550, representing student instructors and assistants, has issued a list of demands that include the right to work remotely, increased COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.

Ballots for an authorization to strike were sent electronically to the 1,000 union members on Friday.

GEO President Sumeet Patwardhan said at a union meeting Friday members overwhelmingly pushed for a vote to authorize a strike.

"Over the entire summer, we’ve been mobilizing many demands around the pandemic and policing. Over four months, we’ve had multiple conversations with the university, and held car and bike rallies to try to make movement on our demands," said Patwardhan, a philosophy doctoral student. "But they have not made the significant change we'd like to see so we moved towards a possible work stoppage."

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said "U-M and GEO continue to discuss the concerns raised by GEO," and declined to further comment.

GEO held a die-in protest at the Diag on Aug. 31 where members chanted "save our health, not your wealth."

Results are expected Monday and should the majority vote to strike, union officials will inform UM officials. Based on the university's response, the union will then declare if there should be a work stoppage,  Patwardhan said.

Regarding COVID-19, the union requested transparent, robust plans for testing, contact tracing and campus safety.

  • For graduate employees, a universal right to work remotely without documentation, resources for remote work, better representation in the decision-making processes of the university surrounding health measures, and access to the health models motivating current policy.
  • For parents and caregivers, care subsidy regardless of a care provider’s license status and location and the age of those who need care; allow for health care plans to be maintained and available even during leaves of absence taken by anyone, at no extra cost
  • For international students, better International Center support and the repeal of the $500 international student fee and document shipping fee.
  • For graduate students, unconditional support in the form of extensions to degree timelines and funding, a $2,500 unconditional emergency grant, rent freezes and flexible leases for on-campus housing.

"Research has been delayed as we approach a decimated academic job market," Patwardhan said. "Timelines and funding is particularly useful to address right now."

Since March, the university has 332 positive COVID-19 tests, only 125 being students. In the past two weeks, 50 tests have returned positive, 26 students and 24 non-students. Eight people are in isolation and 29 are quarantining as of Saturday, according to the university's data. It's unclear if there have been any fatalities from the virus.

On Aug. 31 after more than 300 positive cases on campus, the GEO held a die-in protest at the Diag where members chanted "save our health, not your wealth" regarding in-person teaching.

The anti-policing demands include prohibiting lethal weapons, transparent use of surveillance technology, a standard of force be issued to campus police and that "no one faces retaliation for being unable to work due to police presence."

  • The defunding of the Division of Public Safety and Security, involving a cut of 50% of their annual budget and a reallocation of the funds to community-based justice initiatives.
  • Finally, we demand U-M cut all ties with police, including Ann Arbor Police Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"With months of anti-police brutality uprisings across the nation, these are what we’ve been fighting for even from before, but are highlighting it as what’s most important to us now," he said. "Reallocating funding from the police to community justice is key."

Patwardhan said while they have not received an official response from the university, they have been meeting over the weekend and hope to come to an agreement.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_