By DEAN COHEN

On Sept. 16, University of Michigan graduate employees voted overwhelmingly to end their strike. The vote was 1074 to 239, with 66 members abstaining.

The strike had begun on Sept. 8 over the university’s inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic and plans to reopen, as well as the increasing militarization of the campus police. Key demands of the union, the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), Local 3550, American Federation of Teachers, were the universal right to work remotely, increased COVID testing and defunding the campus police, with 50% of the campus cops’ budget to go to community programs. The GEO received support throughout the university, including resident assistants, cafeteria workers, and construction workers involved in downtown Ann Arbor projects.

The day before the strike ended, Socialist Resurgence traveled to Ann Arbor to spend the day talking to local strike leaders and rank-and-file members about their strike.

When we first arrived at the university, we had hoped to meet with Local 3550 Secretary Amir Fleischmann, who had graciously agreed to take a few minutes out of his hectic schedule to talk with us. We parked our car and headed for the union “base camp,” a large tent located in the “Diag” in front of the Hatcher Library in the middle of the campus. The base camp was bustling with activity with strikers coming and going, picket captains giving instructions through bullhorns and donated refreshments being delivered and setup on long tables in front of the tent.

Local 3550 Secretary Amir Fleischmann.

We reached Amir by phone, but he was in the process of running between meetings and promised to meet us soon.

We approached the front of the tent where a young man with a GEO t-shirt was placing the refreshments on the tables. We introduced ourselves and asked if we could speak with him about the strike. He was delighted to hear that we had just driven up from Cleveland, and readily agreed to speak with us. He was a history Phd student-teacher from Germany named Richard, and he began to fill us in on the background and issues involved in the strike.

How was the morale holding up? “Very well,” he said. Large picket lines were going on around the campus as we spoke and support was pouring in from all over the university as well as the community.

Background to the strike

The union, one of the oldest graduate-student unions in the country, began the current negotiations with the university at the beginning of the summer as the pandemic began to take hold, Richard told us. The central issues at the time were the students’ deadlines and health and safety concerns as the virus began to rapidly spread. Not enough testing was being offered and no clear-cut guidelines seemed to be in place. Issues of policing and racial justice on campus had been ongoing, but quickly grew following the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter protests.

As negotiations with university President Mark Schlissel broke down, the union went out on strike on Sept 8.  The university followed with an unfair labor practice charge against the union for violating the terms of their contract, as well as filing an injunction claiming that the strike was illegal under Michigan state law. These actions, Richard told us, completely backfired on the university. Support began to pour in from other students, faculty and campus workers alike. Richard said that ICE’s new guidelines threatening to deport international students who exclusively take on-line courses was a huge factor in attracting him to the union.

The strike and the labor movement

The strike began to quickly spread beyond the campus as union construction workers involved in downtown Ann Arbor projects began to take notice and show support. However, some of the construction workers took issue with the GEO’s demand to defund the campus cops, claiming the demand was not a “legitimate” labor issue. Strikes, they said, needed to adhere to economic issues and stay away from the “political.” However, said Richard, the strikers were able to have very good discussions with the construction workers about how all strikes are at basis political struggles.

We next spoke with a picket captain named Yeager, a second-year grad student. Today, she told us, there were so many people available for picket duty that the picket lines were packed. Morale was sky-high and so much energy and initiative was displayed that the pickets kept coming up with new lyrics for “Solidarity Forever.” When asked about her take on the issues involved in the strike, she immediately answered, “The main issue is that we do not have a safe and just campus. Everything for which we are striking stems from that. There are extra fees for international students, but there are no resources to protect them.”

Graduate students like her are six months behind in their research due to the disruption caused by the pandemic, and the school has no plan for how to deal with that. Those students who are parents have virtually no access to child care, and the last offer from the school gave just enough money to care for 72 families. There are 500 students in need of child care.

Finally, we got to sit down and talk with Amir, the union local’s secretary, who had just come back from another one of many meetings for him since the beginning of the strike. When we asked for a little history of the local, he informed us that GEO local 3550 is the oldest continuously certified graduate-student union, going back to the mid-70’s.

We wrapped up our talk with Amir by asking him to tell us about the issues concerning on-campus policing. He said that the union’s chief demands were the defunding and disarming of the campus cops. Amir told us that the campus didn’t even have a police force until 1990, and that they had only recently been armed. While other universities have recently been cutting back on on-campus police, the U of M has actually been expanding their force and arming them with weapons obtained from the U.S. military! The union was also demanding that the university cut ties with both ICE and the Ann Arbor cops.

The afternoon ended with a watch party, as the strikers and their allies watched the Faculty Senate split on a vote of no confidence in President Schlissel.

As it was time to leave for our three-hour trip back to Cleveland, Richard, the history Phd student-teacher from Germany, came up to us and offered a bag of sandwiches “for your long trip home.”  After being assured that “we’ll probably just end up throwing them away,” we accepted his gift.

The next day, we were extremely happy to learn that the strike had been settled. According to the GEO, they were able to win “workable pandemic child-care options, substantive support for international graduate students, and transparent COVID-19 testing protocols.” The union also announced that they had made “incremental but real movement on our policing demands.”

Photos by Donna Larrivee-Cohen.