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UM asks court to halt graduate employees strike

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

As the University of Michigan graduate employees authorized a second week of a strike, President Mark Schlissel announced Monday he is seeking court intervention to put an end to the union's work stoppage.

In a video addressing the campus community, Schlissel said it is critical to come together during this time and said he made the difficult decision to seek a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in Washtenaw County Circuit Court. He said the offer to continue talks with the union remains open but the strike is causing "profound disruption to the education we promised our undergraduate students." 

Abigail Finlay, left, 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, September 8, 2020. Several members of the GEO (Graduate Employees Organization) were protesting the school's in-person learning plan and demanding the right to teach remotely to protect against COVID-19.

"We want our great classes to continue, our students to learn without interference and we don't want anyone to feel threatened simply for wanting to go to class," said Schlissel. "Going to the court was our only choice after learning the strike would continue. We'd much rather our classes be in session while we work out our differences together."

GEO officials did not immediately react to the university's move. But earlier in the day, the union said the membership had "overwhelmingly rejected the university’s initial offer last week that did not constitute continued progress on our demands."

"In particular, the university’s offer constituted zero progress on our policing demands," the union statement said. "These are not optional; they are integral to our vision of a safe and just campus for our Black and brown members, colleagues, students, and community members, in solidarity with and indebted to this summer’s national uprisings for racial justice and the long history of struggles against white supremacy in Washtenaw County, Detroit, and Southeast Michigan."

UM's Graduate Employees’ Organization 3550 began striking last Tuesday, days after classes began, citing in-person teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic and other concerns. The union, which represents about 2,000 graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants across the university's campuses in Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint, demanded "transparent and robust" testing and contract tracing for the safety of the campus community, support for those working remotely and more.

UM countered that the strike is illegal. The university also has said that 3 out of 4 graduate student instructors are teaching remotely and it offered a proposal that the GEO membership rejected on Sept. 9 though it was supported by union leadership and would have ended the strike.

State officials on Monday released data showing that many college campuses were hotspots for COVID-19. It showed Grand Valley State University has 438 ongoing cases among students, Central Michigan University has 271 ongoing cases among students and Adrian College has 229 cases among students and school staff. UM meanwhile has 77 cases among its students.

On Tuesday, Schlissel and Provost Susan Collins will have a live conversation with professor Scott E. Page, a faculty member in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and the Stephen M. Ross School of Business. The discussion will include questions about COVID-19, campus planning and how the pandemic is affecting  community members. Officials have said no questions will be off-limits.