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UM grad students end strike after gaining concessions on policing demands

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Graduate employees at the University of Michigan voted overwhelmingly late Wednesday to accept the university's offer, end their strike and return to teaching on Thursday morning.

The Graduate Employee's Organization Local 3550, representing student instructors and assistants, have been on strike since Sept. 8 over concerns of in-person teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic and other issues.

Though the union rejected the university's first offer last week, the 1,074 GEO members voted to accept the university’s second offer, 239 members voted to reject and 66 abstained.

"This is a really big win, but it is not the end," said Jeff Lockhart, a PhD candidate in UM's sociology department and a member of the union's COVID-19 caucus.

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.

In a statement, the GEO said it had prevailed "in the face of the University’s threats and bullying."

"Thousands of members and allies came out in force day after day on the virtual and in-person picket lines to show that graduate students and their allies were prepared to fight for this community," the statement said. "By withholding our labor, building coalitions, and making our power impossible to ignore, we forced the university to give us an offer with substantive progress toward a safe and just campus."

Although it was not a "100% win," Lockhart said, the university made substantial movement on all of the union's platforms. He said the university agreed to drop a legal move attempting to get the Washtenaw County Circuit Court to intervene in the work stoppage.

"We are pleased that GEO has ended its strike and members will return to work Thursday," UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said.

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

"We won workable pandemic childcare options, substantive support for international graduate students, transparent COVID-19 testing protocols and incremental but real movement on our policing demands," according to the statement from the union.

Policing demands met included a commitment to:

•A revision of the Michigan Ambassadors program

•Substantive consultation with the undergraduate Students of Color Liberation Front about changing the role of the police in the revised program

•Meetings with regents on public safety.

•A policing task force that, among other things, evaluates best practices for the Division of Public Safety & Security information transparency and issues a public report with recommendations on policing.

"Our victories on policing in particular came from our members’ refusal to abandon these demands by accepting a first offer with zero progress on them, and, importantly, from the work of some of our Black members to reorient around and win strategic first victories in a long-term abolitionist organizing campaign," the GEO statement said.

Faculty members could not believe the university had tried to use legal moves during the strike, the longest by GEO since 1975. It attracted the attention of many, including Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit.

"Union-busting via the courts is unbecoming of a leading public institution with a rich history of labor organizing," Tlaib tweeted Monday. "This is shameful. I stand with @geo3550 and the mass student, faculty, & staff movement to demand safe working and living environments at U-M. #StrikeForSafeCampus"

Lockhart said the union is energized.

"We have never more support nationally," he said. "We have a lot of energy momentum and we are going to carry that into ongoing activism."

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com