UM grad student employees vote to strike starting Tuesday

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

The 1,000 or so members of the Graduate Employees Union at the University of Michigan have authorized a strike and will begin picketing on Tuesday, the union announced on Labor Day.

"This is a historic moment: we are striking at the beginning of the year, in the midst of a pandemic, to protect our whole community," the union wrote on Twitter.

The organization had issued a list of demands that include the right to work remotely, increased COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.

Saturday:UM graduate employees issue demands, vote on strike authorization

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

Rick Fitzgerald, spokesman for the University of Michigan, noted that GEO ratified a new contract with the university in April.

In a statement, Fitzgerald added that public employee strikes are illegal in Michigan. 

"A strike by GEO violates the GEO contract and violates state law," Fitzgerald wrote.  "GEO’s contract with U-M also prohibits (graduate student employees) from taking part in any action against or interference with the operations of the university, such as failing to report for duty or the failure to perform their employment duties."

"Separately, GEO has raised a number of issues that cannot be resolved as a matter of their contract or through a collective bargaining procedure,"  Fitzgerald said. "The university is preparing to continue operations, including classes, in the event of a strike."

Sumeet Patwardhan, president of the GEO, told The News that just under 600 members voted in favor of the strike and just under 100 voted against it. He noted some members were unavailable to vote due to being away for the Labor Day weekend.

"If we don't get an offer that's acceptable, GEO and our allies will be withholding their labor," Patwardhan said. That could mean another 500 graduate students and "many allies" throughout the university."

While the union did ratify a new deal recently, Patwardhan said the combination of a "global pandemic and nationwide uprising against police brutality" sparked a need to seek concessions related to both.

For workers, they seek increased flexibility. As far as law enforcement, they demand the university defund its police system by half and cut ties with law enforcement.

Among the list of demands:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • UM must cut all ties with police, including the Ann Arbor Police Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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.

UM has given 10,752 tests since March 8, and 341 of them have come back positive, according to the university's data. In the last two weeks, 59 people have tested positive. 

According to the Michigan Almanac, last updated in January, there are about 73,000 people at the Ann Arbor campus, between students, faculty and staff. 

The union will hold a digital meeting from 5 to 7 p.m. with its membership. Members will sign up for picket shifts, whether in-person or virtual. 

The union representing 1,600 lecturers at UM offered its support to the graduate student employees' action, and says the university "mismanaged" the fall return to campus.

"Like our graduate student colleagues, LEO condemns the way the administration has mismanaged the return to classes this fall: employees, including lecturers, were not properly consulted; information about the fall plan, and internal disagreements over it, have been withheld; and the testing regime in place appears inadequate to the task of keeping students and employees safe," wrote Ian Robinson, president of the lecturers union.

Even so, the union reminded its members that withholding their labor is a violation of the no-strike clause in their contract, which would "expose" those who do it to "disciplinary action."