The Graduate Employees’ Organization, the union representing about 2,000 graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants across the University of Michigan’s three campuses, has voted to go on strike for four days starting Sept. 8.
The strike vote over the Labor Day weekend followed weeks of discussions with university officials over a wide range of issues, many of them related to U-M’s plans for a mostly remote hybrid fall semester prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most of the issues are unrelated to the employment status of GEO members. They encompass broader societal issues, student matters, or issues impacting the employment and status of other faculty and staff at the university, said Rick Fitzgerald, university spokesperson.
GEO called for a strike even though state law and the current GEO contract with U-M, ratified in April, prohibit such action, Fitzgerald said. The university is prepared to continue operations, including classes.
In a statement on its website, GEO, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, said members would strike until U-M “adequately addresses our concerns.”
Those concerns have been articulated to the university in recent discussions. They include:
- Transparency on robust COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and safety plans.
- Allowing all GSIs to decide for themselves to work remotely.
- Cutting the budget for the Division of Public Safety & Security by half.
- Ending all ties with the Ann Arbor Police Department and the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
- Repeal of the $500-per-term international student fee.
- More flexible financial aid child care subsidies.
- A $2,500 payment to all graduate students and time-to-degree extensions for Ph.D. students.
With nearly 80 percent of all undergraduate credit hours being offered remotely, the university has granted the requests of all GSIs who have expressed a need or preference to work remotely, said Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald said the university has shared detailed and robust plans for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, with information about the situation on campus and in the region regularly updated and publicly available on the U-M COVID-19 dashboard.
The U-M COVID-19 testing plan was designed based on detailed input from dozens of experts including several faculty members from the School of Public Health who are also advising Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. It is broad-based and has multiple components, including:
- Surveillance testing of 3,000 faculty, staff and students per week.
- Baseline testing of nearly 6,000 students before they moved into Michigan Housing.
- Testing of residents of affiliated fraternity or sorority facilities.
- Symptomatic testing of students through University Health Service, and of faculty and staff through Occupational Health Services.
- Exposure testing for close contacts identified though case investigation, contact tracing or workplace exposure investigations.
- Antibody testing for Michigan Medicine faculty and staff involved in patient care.
- Daily symptom tracking through the ResponsiBLUE health screening tool.
In addition, School of Public Health researchers are studying wastewater samples and taking measurements of air to determine the presence of COVID-19 in the campus environment, and whether that has any relationship on infection rates within the university community.
Most of GEO’s stated issues are not related to their status as employees, the university says. Rather, they relate to graduate students generally or the broader university community, which are not subject to union negotiations.
“A strike at this time is taking an illegal job action over issues that are not related to their employment and therefore unresolvable through the methods that are available to both the university and GEO under the GEO contract,” Fitzgerald said.