‘Close to Open Revolt’

Graduate students and RAs at the University of Michigan are on strike over the university's COVID-19 response.

September 16, 2020
 
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

President Mark Schlissel and Provost Susan Collins of the University of Michigan recently acknowledged growing tensions on campus over the university's response to the pandemic and an increasing lack of trust in the administration.

“We write to you today out of a deep concern for our university community -- one that feels fractured, with some expressing frustration, anger and distrust,” they wrote in an email to the campus last Friday. “We recognize that we must do more to engage with and include members of our community as we grapple with the complex decisions to be made going forward.”

Anger from faculty members, staff and students toward the Michigan administration had been brewing for months, but in early September, that anger bubbled up and over. The graduate employees' union went on strike Sept. 8, followed closely by student resident assistants. Student dining workers have engaged in their own actions, and faculty will have the chance to vote no confidence in the administration today.

Employees at many other institutions have voiced their frustrations at reopening through open letters and “die-in” protests. But the University of Michigan has become the epicenter of unrest directed at what some see as an ineffective plan and an institutional disregard for community health.

“I personally have not spoken to a single person who thinks our COVID reopening plan was well conceived,” said Silke-Maria Weineck, a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Michigan. “What you have right now, I think, is a campus getting close to open revolt.”

The university has reopened in a hybrid format, with over 75 percent of courses online. On-campus housing is open, and students are able to choose whether to return to campus this year. The university has mostly limited COVID-19 testing to students with symptoms, but it is conducting surveillance testing for a sample of about 9 percent of undergraduates.

The graduate employee strike in particular has been incredibly disruptive for the university, as participating graduate students have refused to hold class, do research or complete other university labor. Grad students are involved in teaching 3,500 courses. Their union, the Graduate Employees’ Organization, or GEO, has also asked undergraduates and faculty to show solidarity by similarly refusing to teach or attend class. (Members say they understand some work -- such as live animal research or mentorship -- should still go on.)

The students’ pickets have also meant that unionized construction workers and truck drivers have refused to complete work on campus, which graduate students have lauded. The administration said the impact from those events is unclear. U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan has also voiced her support for the union.

The strike is high stakes for graduate students themselves, because the action is illegal. Public employees are not permitted to strike in the state of Michigan, and the union has a no-strike clause in its university contract.

The university early on filed an unfair labor practice charge against the union and, after the union voted this week to continue its strike, responded by asking a state court to order students back to work. According to the university press release, if a preliminary injunction is granted, strikers who persist in the work stoppage could be held in contempt of court, and the union could face civil damages.

“Going to the court was our only choice after learning the strike would continue,” Schlissel said in a video message to campus. “We’d much rather our classes be in session while we work out our differences.”

Alyssa Frizzo, a junior and resident assistant, said that while RAs have been talking about their frustration since move-in, the graduate student strike was the push they needed to announce a work stoppage. Their demands include hazard pay, regular testing for RAs, personal protective equipment and greater enforcement of safety measures.

“I do feel like they are not taking us seriously, like they can wait us out,” Frizzo said of the administration. “I don’t think throughout this whole process including the town halls they’ve really understood how serious we are about this.”

Student dining workers at the university had also planned a walkout last week to raise awareness about issues in their department, but those plans were canceled at the last minute due to fear of retaliation.

“The core of the walkout and the core of the sentiment behind this is the failure at the university level,” said Bridgette Pollaski, a senior and student manager in one of Michigan’s dining halls. “The biggest concern that we have so far is that there is no widespread mandatory testing available.”

How We Got Here

The graduate union says it will continue the strike until the university makes progress on a number of demands. The organization says it wants more robust testing and tracing, the option for instructors to switch to remote teaching, subsidies for student parents and caregivers, support for international students, timeline and funding extensions, and rent freezes for those in university housing. The union has also made cutting ties with local police and federal immigration authorities, as well as a 50 percent diversion of funds from campus police, other conditions for ending the strike.

“We need a fair and just pandemic response,” said Jeff Lockhart, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and union member. “The university is disregarding all of the best evidence and advice from its own experts in terms of how they should be reopening.”

Testing and teaching have gotten particular attention from faculty and students as well as grads.

The university’s testing regimen has been less intensive than those at some other institutions. The administration tested only students in residence halls or Greek life before arrival. Michigan’s surveillance testing program is voluntary and capped at 3,000 tests per week. 

Some have pointed to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which is testing all undergraduate students twice per week, as a model Michigan could emulate in testing, but officials have defended their approach. The university has only had 63 student cases of COVID so far in September.

“Their entire residential life is on lockdown,” Schlissel said of Illinois, in a town hall meeting. “Testing was a limited resource here at the university, and until quite recently it’s continued to be a limited resource.”

While public health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have declined to endorse entry testing or mass testing of asymptomatic individuals, a number of studies have underlined the importance of those measures.

Less than 25 percent of Michigan classes have an in-person component, and professors and lecturers say the administration accommodated most requests from faculty to teach remotely. But they also say some faculty have felt coerced or would like the chance to alter decisions they made in June, when community spread was low.

“The university’s line is that nobody has actually been coerced, but if that were true it would be very easy for them to write a policy that says no one has to work in person against their will,” Lockhart said.

Frustration over a lack of transparency also preceded the strike. A spate of open letters and petitions landed at the university’s door this summer, and faculty say the responses have been lacking.

The college reopening plan was drafted with Michigan’s medical and public health experts, but faculty say they wanted greater representation and communication. Over the summer, a letter from members of the President’s Committee on Ethics and Privacy circulated throughout campus but was not released by the administration. In it, officials said the university’s plan did not meet safety standards. (The administration says further measures, including some mentioned in the committee memo, have been adopted since then.)

Over the summer professors prodded the university to release its risk modeling and estimates, which it declined to do. In a proposal to the graduate students, the university said that information was not available.

“We do not have a model that predicts infection rates with sufficient reliability and cannot commit to providing these data as we are uncertain when or if it will become available,” the administration wrote. “If reliable data do become available they will be communicated to the broader University community.”

That proposal, which graduate students rejected in a vote, would have held the university to communicating more data and information about testing and allowed graduate students to temporarily switch to remote learning.

“Part of why we think their offer was disingenuous is there are a bunch of zero-dollar, zero-risk demands the university refuses to do,” said Lockhart, referring specifically to demands that the university pledge not to buy military hardware for police and let instructors teach remotely. “If we were all really getting what we wanted [in terms of teaching modality], it wouldn’t cost them anything to make that offer to us.”

The strike has not been without controversy. Response to the union’s antipolicing demands has been mixed, with both vocal supporters and critics. The university has said those issues are not within the scope of a union contract, and some have said other parties beyond the union and the administration should be involved in policing decisions.

But several faculty from the School of Public Health supported the policing campaign in an op-ed.

“A truly ‘public health-informed’ plan for workplace safety on campus must recognize how policing impacts health and must work actively to improve upon the health of all members of the community,” they wrote in the Michigan Daily.

Union members have said the policing demands follow in the tradition of unions using their leverage to create greater societal change, a strategy called “bargaining for the common good.”

The union also found itself in hot water regarding a drawing of Scabby the Rat, a symbol used in the labor movement to mark union-busting employers and strikebreakers. After complaints that the rat was anti-Semitic, the union apologized, only to find itself criticized by other parties for the apology.

But support is at this point still somewhat strong. More than 660 Michigan faculty members and 230 other scholars have signed open letters in support of the strike.

“GEO’s insistence on a universal, unqualified right to work remotely is in the best interest of the broader UM community. While the university has consistently responded that they are ‘not aware’ of any coercion to teach in person or in a hybrid format, they have also refused to institute such a guarantee as university policy,” the faculty letter said. “We are deeply disappointed that while so many of the University’s constituents bravely risk their livelihoods to raise grave concerns about public health and safety on campus, the administration has used procedures and technicalities to silence, delegitimize or ignore their concerns.”

The timeline for the university’s injunction will depend on the courts, but so far, the union has remained hopeful.

“This legal move is a clear sign that withholding our labor is working,” the union wrote to members. “The university is feeling our power.”

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