U of M grad student union ends strike, but safety concerns still loom

Sign encourage social distancing during COVID-19, Ann Arbor | Susan J. Demas

After nine days of striking, University of Michigan’s Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) voted Wednesday to end the strike and accept the university’s offer.

The strike began after the university denied their request for transparent and robust testing, contact tracing, and safety plans for campus, support for graduate student instructors (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.

After an unsuccessful offer from the university last week, the group agreed to the second offer with a 1,074-239-66 vote Wednesday night. 

“In the face of the University’s threats and bullying, our member power still won critical progress,” the group wrote in a statement. 

Union holds strike protesting U of M reopening plans

The offer from the university included pandemic childcare options, support for international graduate students, transparent COVID-19 testing protocols and “incremental but real movement on our policing demands.”

The policing demands included commitments to revise the Michigan Ambassadors program, to consult with the undergraduate Students of Color Liberation Front (SoCLF) about changing the role of the police in the revised program, to meet with Regents on public safety, and to create a policing task force that works with the SoCLF and GEO, evaluates best practices for the Division of Public Safety and 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 group wrote. 

U of M spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said the university is “pleased that GEO has ended its strike and members will return to work Thursday.”

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel filed a motion Monday asking the Washtenaw County Circuit Court to intervene with the strikes.

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“In the face of our power, the University of Michigan decided to lean on a nearly hundred year old union-busting law to sue their own graduate students. President Mark Schlissel belittled our months of persistent negotiation and organizing as ‘screaming’ and tried to paint us as unreasonable, all while COVID-19 outbreak after outbreak on campus proved our fears for our community’s safety all too accurate,” the group wrote. “The University poured their immense resources into legal fees instead of simply protecting our community by implementing reasonable steps toward a safe and just pandemic response for all.”

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) tweeted about Schlissel’s legal action Monday, calling it “union busting” and “shameful”, adding that she stood with the striking graduate student employees.  

Despite accepting the university’s offer, the graduate student organization says this is far from the end for them. 

“Tonight is a beginning,” GEO wrote. “GEO has been around since 1975. We’re not going anywhere. We’re not giving up. We need each other still, and we need to show up where and when we’re called. We have built relationships of trust and support not only amongst ourselves, but with various other groups on this campus. We will continue to reach out a hand, to work and organize collectively, demanding safety for everyone as we continue to strengthen these ties.”

‘No confidence’ vote on U of M president fails

However, the strike was only one hurdle the university’s administration has been facing since the start of the fall semester. 

The university’s residential hall staff is still on strike, students living in on-campus quarantine and isolation housing say they do not have necessary cleaning supplies, food or microwaves and Schlissel has held strong to his belief that mass COVID-19 testing is not beneficial, yet will be testing the football team daily after announcing Wednesday that Big Ten football is back.

On Wednesday, the Faculty Senate met to vote for “no confidence” in Schlissel and his administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic on campus. 

The vote failed to get the majority’s approval, but the Michigan Daily wrote that based on an old 19th century rule, the Senate may have miscounted the majority because it included the abstentions. 

Faculty Senate leadership told the Daily the Faculty Senate Office “will speak to the issue of abstentions in a few days as we are continuing to look at the issue.”

Despite the outcome of whether or not the “no confidence” vote is passed, the vote is largely symbolic and will not remove the president from office.