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UM student instructors strike over COVID-19 concerns

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

University of Michigan graduate student instructors began a strike Tuesday, demanding the right to work remotely amid the COVID-19 pandemic as more cases of the virus were detected on campus.

Members of the UM Graduate Employees Union had authorized the strike over the weekend, issued a list of demands and planned a teach-in over Zoom.

The union, which represents 2,000 graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants at UM's campuses in Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint, planned to strike for four days.It was not clear how many graduate students participated Tuesday, the first day of the walkout.

Amir Fleischmann, secretary of the GEO, said the union was heartened by the robust response the strike received from group members as well as other school workers.

He said the COVID-19 protection sought by the group would help all school workers, not just union members.

"We're supporting the safety of everyone on campus," he said.

Fleischmann said the union wants the school to be more transparent about its testing and tracing practices for COVID and allow all workers the option to work remotely.

Union members said they realized the strike was illegal but that only underscored the importance of their concerns, and what they were willing to do to fight for them.

The vast majority of classes at the University of Michigan have shifted to online. But the union said the university isn’t doing enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It also wants the campus police budget cut by 50% and an end to cooperation with Ann Arbor police.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the strike is illegal under state law and the union contract. He said the university was prepared to continue operations, including classes.

“The university is preparing to continue operations, including classes, in the event of a strike,” he said.

Abigail Finlay, center, a University of Michigan mathematics graduate student instructor, marches with fellow protestors in front of the University of Michigan's Angell Hall on State Street in Ann Arbor, Tuesday.

The strike comes as four UM students living in three UM dorms tested positive for COVID-19.

"This is why we fight," tweeted the graduate student union, posting an article by The Detroit News. It ended the tweet with the hash tag, #StrikeForSafeCampus.

UM officials said over the weekend that the union was violating its contract and breaking the law by striking.

On Monday, UM posted a story about the strike vote on the University Record, a publication for faculty, staff and retirees. 

"The strike vote over the Labor Day weekend followed weeks of discussions with university officials over a wide range of issues, many of them related to U-M’s plans for a mostly remote hybrid fall semester prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic," according to the article.

John Olson, a University of Michigan G.S.I. (Graduate Student Instructor - economics) marches with fellow protestors in front of the University of Michigan's LSA building on State Street in Ann Arbor, Tuesday.

"With nearly 80 percent of all undergraduate credit hours being offered remotely, the university has granted the requests of all GSIs who have expressed a need or preference to work remotely."

Testing and contract tracing plans have been shared, the article said.

Many people were picketing on the grounds of UM's campus with umbrellas, according to video posted on Twitter by UM's student newspaper, the Michigan Daily.

The labor union representing more than 1,000 graduate students encouraged those who are not picketing to join remotely.

"We are CALLING Administrators to restate our demands! Join us!," tweeted the union from its official Twitter account, and listed telephone numbers of officials. "We've heard that Regent (Ron) Weiser especially loves hearing from us :)"

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com