University of Michigan staff continue demanding change after grad students end strike

In an open letter, staff are picking up the call for a "safe and just campus."

September 19, 2020, 7:30 AM

A strike over conditions during the coronavirus pandemic at the University of Michigan ended this week after two proposals and legal action from the institution. But students and staff are continuing to demand change.

GEO, the union representing over 2,000 graduate student instructors and graduate staff assistants at the school's three campuses, went on strike Sept. 8, with a list of demands including the right to work remotely and increasing COVID-19 testing. On Wednesday, after extending the four-day strike, it announced it had accepted a second offer from the university.

Members of the Graduate Employees' Organization Local 3550 protest outside of Angell Hall on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich., Sept. 11, 2020.
Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press via USA Today Network

The move came two days after the University of Michigan authorized seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against the union strike. In Michigan, it is illegal for public employees to strike, the university noted in a statement. The university has since withdrawn its unfair labor practice charge and has agreed to dismiss its request for an injunction, spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said in a statement.

The university's revised GEO proposal "created a stronger process to address health and safety concerns for GEO members working on campus," and enabled graduate student instructors and graduate staff assistants "to appeal any decision requiring them to work on campus," Fitzgerald said.

The union's concerns about police on campus "fall outside the parameters of the GEO contract," the university said. Though in a statement released Wednesday, the union noted it won "incremental but real movement on our policing demands," including committing to a new policing task force.

A member of the Graduate Employees' Organization Local 3550 stakes a sign into the ground in protest on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich., Sept. 11, 2020.
Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press via USA Today Network

While union members are no longer on picket lines at the Ann Arbor campus, they have continued their demand for a "safe and just campus," including supporting an ongoing strike by the university's undergraduate resident advisers. On Sept. 9, over 100 residential advisers voted to strike, calling for increased COVID-19 protections and hazard pay for student Michigan Housing employees, who are not formally unionized.

"Tonight is a beginning," the GEO union said in its statement on Wednesday. "GEO will keep fighting, including to protect undergraduate resident assistants and dining staff from retaliation for their courageous organizing for safe working conditions; to hold the University’s new policing task force accountable for enacting substantive, ongoing change in campus policing; to support our members in grieving individual health and safety violations; and more."

On Thursday, University of Michigan staff published an open letter stating they "believe many of the issues GEO and other student activists are fighting for remain unresolved," and voiced alarm at the university's response toward the campus strikes.

"We encourage the University to continue to meet in substantive negotiations with the campus community to create informed and equitable solutions to meet the needs of all U-M staff, faculty, and students," the letter stated. "Staff stand in solidarity with the RAs demands for increased testing, PPE, and safe and transparent enforcement strategies of COVID guidelines that do not involve armed police."

As of Friday evening, 116 university staff members had signed the letter, which demanded that the university cease "retaliation against all student workers" and "ensure a safe, equitable, and just work environment for the entire University of Michigan community," among other actions.

The University of Michigan started classes Aug. 31, with a mix of in-person and remote instruction. Since Aug, 23, there have been 128 cases of COVID-19 reported, based on data posted to the university's website. This week, the university identified a cluster of 19 confirmed COVID-19 cases at one of its residence halls.

In response to concerns from GEO and the community, the university said earlier this week it would increase the scale of its surveillance testing and pledge "greater data transparency." On Friday, the university debuted new dashboard features, including case numbers listed by residence hall and a new section with data on surveillance testing. Next month, the Ann Arbor campus will start saliva-based COVID-19 diagnostic surveillance testing services, which will allow the university to ramp up its testing capacity to 6,000, officials said.

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