ANN ARBOR, MI – While more than 70% of the University of Michigan’s classes are being taught online this fall, Kathleen Brown was quick to question which types of instructors would feel the pressure to teach in-person.
The second-year PhD student in UM’s American Culture Department said it’s natural to assume graduate student instructors have been more greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic financially than their faculty counterparts, putting more stress on them to teach the classes the university is offering in-person.
It also has forced graduate employees to apply pressure on the university by striking Tuesday, Sept. 8, marching and chanting at five different locations on the UM campus, asking the university for more transparency in its plans related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including randomized testing.
A universal right to work remotely was one of the union’s demands. They also want a universal right to work remotely, childcare subsidies, unarming of the campus’s Division of Public Safety and Security and more.
“If you’re working with someone who’s advising you or is responsible for passing you along, how much power do you have to say ‘no’ if they have expectations for you that differ from what you want?” Brown said. “We’ve also heard, not just from graduate students, but staff members that are not unionized, that they’ve been encouraged, because students are coming back, to be working in the office instead of remotely.
“This strike is not just about us. If we can get universal remote work option, it sets a precedent and makes it easier for staff members.”
After announcing plans Monday to strike for the first time since 1975, graduate employees from GEO picketed starting at 5 a.m. Tuesday, with plans of continuing the strike for 12 hours a day through Sept. 11. After meeting late Monday, Brown said around 1,200 individuals have signed up to participate in strike actions in the coming week, although not all of those are members of GEO.
While UM announced it would be ramping up testing for up to 3,000 individuals weekly by the end of the month as part of a an opt-in, voluntary surveillance testing program on the Ann Arbor campus, graduate workers believe testing should be completely randomized and for individuals who are asymptomatic to help prevent large outbreaks. For the week beginning Aug. 30, UM conducted 989 tests.
“It’s so obvious that they could be testing asymptomatic people and doing randomized testing,” GEO Secretary Amir Fleischmann said. “That’s what the experts are calling for if we want to have a safe reopening. GEO does not have an official position on whether or not campus should be reopened in-person, but the way they’re doing it is not safe and we demand better from our administrators.”
UM Spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the university continues to explore additional ways to increase testing capacity and “is ready to continue” discussions with GEO more broadly after meeting over Labor Day weekend.
University officials pointed out Monday that the GEO contract and Michigan law prohibits any action that affects university operations like a strike.
“We’re working to assess the impact of the strike, but our expectation is that classes and other operations will continue as scheduled,” Fitzgerald said, noting it is “just too early in the process” to speculate how graduate students’ employment will be impacted by the strike action.
Beyond the impact COVID-19 has had on graduate employees, the strike is intended to continue to press the university on issues related to social justice, GEO leaders say.
Months of prodding over the summer to defund UM police by 50%, as well as cut all ties with the Ann Arbor Police Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), have not been met with any signs of progress, graduate employee Simeon Newman said.
Newman said while the COVID-19 and “anti-policing” demands are seen as separate issues, there is clearly some crossover, pointing to UM’s Michigan Ambassador program previously using armed police officers in providing outreach to remind students about public health best practices.
“This was the most hands-on version of a public health policy the university could come up with,” Newman said of the Michigan Ambassador program. “… As the university cries about a terrible budget shortfall on the one hand, campus police has gotten an increase in funding over the past year.”
Fleischmann agreed that UM’s response to GEO’s demands regarding policing are out of touch given the national movement to defund law enforcement in favor of more community-centered programming.
“Given the national moment we’re in where there are uprisings against racist policing and police violence all over the country, the university’s administration is so out of touch that they actually are expanding cooperation with Ann Arbor PD, when comparable institutions like the University of Minnesota are cutting ties with local police,” Fleischmann said. “It shows a lack of attention for what the community is demanding.”
Fitzgerald said GEO’s on campus policing demands fall outside of the parameters of the GEO contract and are not appropriate for GEO negotiations.
“DPSS serves the entire university community,” Fitzgerald said.
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