Union holds strike protesting U of M reopening plans

The University of Michigan reopened for in-person learning for the fall 2020 semester during the COVID-19 pandemic. | Susan J. Demas

Over Labor Day weekend, members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), a labor union that represents University of Michigan graduate student instructors (GSI) and graduate student staff assistants, approved a four-day strike until the university issues an offer that meets the group’s demands. 

In the last 14 days, 36 students and 22 non-students at U of M tested positive for COVID-19. 

The group is asking for transparent and robust testing, contact tracing, and safety plans for campus, support for GSIs working remotely and an option to switch to remote from hybrid or in-person, flexible subsidies for parents and caregivers, better support for international students and to repeal the international student fee, timeline and funding extensions, an emergency grant, and flexible leases and rent freezes at U of M housing for graduate students.

The group also included demands around the university’s increased use of campus and local police departments to monitor student activity during the pandemic, calling on the diversion of funds from campus police and ending any and all ties to local law enforcement and other agencies (ICE). 

“In GEO’s last contract campaign this spring, we demanded disarming and demilitarizing campus police, which the university refused to bargain over,” GEO wrote in a statement Monday. “We highlight that GEO views our anti-policing demands as inseparable from our COVID demands. They are linked explicitly, through the University’s decision to expand the policing of our community in a perverse effort to enforce social distancing, and implicitly, through the ways the crises of the pandemic and racist policing both disproportionately affect the most vulnerable among us.”

U of M students, faculty hold ‘die-in’ to persuade president to close campuses

The work stoppage began at 12 a.m Tuesday with potential for reauthorization.

However, according to a statement from the university, this demonstration is illegal. 

“The state of Michigan prohibits public employees from striking. GEO’s contract with U of M also prohibits the union and GSIs and GSSAs 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,” U of M spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said. 

Fitzgerald also noted that the university is prepared to continue classes, even in the event of a strike. 

“This is an historic moment,” GEO leaders wrote. “GEO membership has voted to strike in the middle of a pandemic at the beginning of the academic year, and is prepared to withhold our labor in pursuit of a safe and just campus for all.”

Last week, GEO held a “die-in” in opposition to the school’s in-person reopening plan and to “draw attention to the human cost of the University’s decision to return to a residential semester.”

Allison Donahue
Allison Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.