University of Michigan graduate student workers picket on Sept. 8. (MLive.com)

By ERWIN FREED

Local 3550, which covers over 2000 workers at the University of Michigan, voted to strike beginning Sept. 8. Late on Sept. 10, a union meeting attended by over 1250 people voted to reject the university administration’s proposals and continue the strike. The main points of contention were the university’s coronavirus response and defunding the police. The next strike continuation vote will be this weekend.

Socialist Resurgence spoke with Local 3550 Secretary Amir Fleischmann, a Political Science PhD candidate, about the strike, the union, and the labor movement. Below are some highlights from the discussion, written in narrative form.

The main problems at hand are the university’s reopening plans and public safety, including police budgets and their presence on campus. Graduate workers are bargaining for a COVID response that includes a high level of randomized testing, child-care subsidies, protections for international students, and “a universal right to work remotely without documentation, resources for remote work.” They are also fighting for a 50% decrease in the University of Michigan Police Department Budget, removal of Ann Arbor and ICE officers from the campus, and demilitarizing the cops.

Issues of policing were present in the GEO’s contract fight earlier this year, but the international upsurge following George Floyd’s murder was a factor that pushed the union to take up strike action this week. The interrelated triple crises of Black oppression, COVID-19 pandemic, and austerity in higher education point to the burning importance of this week’s strike actions. On the one hand, they are in continuity with the Seattle Labor Council’s historic decision to expel police from the official labor movement. On the other, the U of M strike is part of a national process in which educators have gone out on strike “illegally” and won.

Fleischmann says that last Tuesday’s National Scholars strike for racial justice was an inspiration for the GEO’s decision to go out at the same time. The National Scholars strike was itself inspired by the example of WNBA and NBA walkouts last month. Labor actions are spreading around campus. Non-union undergraduate resident hall workers have begin their own strike over pandemic response, building trades workers are refusing to cross GEO picket lines, and on Tuesday the Faculty Senate is holding a vote of no confidence in university president Mark Schlissel.

The strike itself is a visionary example of the possibilities for labor combativity. GEO workers have been uncompromising in their use of class-struggle tools to wage a fight for broad social demands. The university administration is attempting to refuse negotiations over policing and virus testing due to those being “permissive subjects of bargaining.”

Under capitalist law, permissive subjects of bargaining, as opposed to mandatory subjects of bargaining, do not need to be addressed unless agreed upon by both parties. Amir points out that what is a permissive or mandatory subject of bargaining is itself a product of struggle, giving the example that tuition waivers were once considered “permissive” and are now a fundamental part of graduate employee contracts.

Along these same lines, the administration is trying to denounce the strike as “illegal.” Fleishmann explained to SR that this is a “disgusting turn of the administration to right-wing laws to justify crushing the labor movement. These laws are already stacked against labor everywhere. Striking is a human right and I am proud to be disobeying these laws.”

Similarly, the university is trying to use the contract’s no-strike clause as a reason to end the actions. Amir responded to this desperate act with the fact that the administration is itself violating the contract’s workplace safety clause by militarizing campus police and giving a poor response to the pandemic. Vanderbilt University, which has a population of around a quarter of that of U of M, has conducted 10 times the number of tests.

Solidarity is coming from coast to coast, with unions on and off campuses making statements and donations to the U of M GEO’s strike fund. Amir says that it is “amazing to see” so much support. Other workers who have endorsed Local 3550’s strike include the graduate employees at University of California Santa Cruz, who themselves led a successful wildcat strike this year.

Socialist Resurgence stands wholeheartedly with striking Local 3550 workers and encourages our readers to donate to their strike fund!