- Interview by
- Peter Lucas
Nearly 2,400 graduate student workers at the University of Michigan represented by the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) Local 3550 have been on strike for over a month, since March 29, making it the longest strike in the union’s forty-nine-year history.
The graduate student workers walked out after rejecting the university’s original pay-raise offer, which would amount to a pay decrease under inflation. The union is also demanding better protections and support for international students, a reformed campus police (including an unarmed response team), and more help with childcare. Four GEO members sat down with Jacobin’s Peter Lucas to discuss the strike and how the university has responded so far.
Why are you all on strike? What are your demands?
We’ve been on strike since March 29, making this the longest strike in our union’s forty-nine-year history. We’re striking because graduate students at the University of Michigan are facing some pretty serious problems, similar to the problems felt by people across the country.
We’ve seen the gap between our salaries and the cost of living triple over the past three years. At the same time, administrators at the university are raking in gigantic salaries upward of half a million dollars a year and, for the president, actually reaching $1 million a year.
At this university, we’ve also seen a huge problem with sexual harassment, and other forms of harassment and discrimination. Around a quarter of graduate students at the University of Michigan have had an experience with harassment or discrimination. There have been some really high-profile cases of harassment at the university. In the five years I’ve been here, they’ve had to fire both the president and the provost due to sexual misconduct, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
We are building on the work of our 2020 strike by calling for the university to fund a community-based and unarmed police alternative called Coalition for Re-Envisioning Our Safety; we’re fighting for better gender-affirming care for our trans members; we’re also demanding additional support for international students, disabled workers, and parents.
What has bargaining been like?
Bargaining has been extremely frustrating. We started bargaining with the university officially in mid-November 2022. The university wasted the first couple of months by fighting us on logistics about how bargaining should be set up.
It has been really important that members of our union, graduate students outside of the bargaining team, can listen in to bargaining and be able to participate in caucus, where we are able to vote on issues and make decisions as a group. That’s a more efficient, open, and transparent way to bargain, but the university really fought us on that.
After we finally started bargaining over substantive issues related to the contract, their approach all along has been to stonewall. We came up with fifty-five extremely well-researched and carefully written proposals, which took months of work, and the university has responded with blanket rejections — literally marking through entire proposals — and then forcing us to dig for the reasons why.
They’ll respond with something generic, like, “We just don’t have an interest in doing this,” or “This would be an administrative burden.” We go back to our working groups, revamp the proposal trying to address their concerns, and then the cycle continues where they reject us all over again. It’s been painstakingly slow.
One of the core issues is the cost-of-living crisis. Our compensation proposal demands that the University of Michigan raise graduate student salaries up to the level of the cost of living in Ann Arbor for a single person with no dependents, which should be the bare minimum to be able to afford to live here. “The university’s response was initially to offer a 2 percent raise — amounting to roughly $40 per month — which is laughable. Their current offer is 5 percent (roughly $100 per month), which is still less than the cost of inflation in the last year alone. All this makes clear that they have not been engaging seriously with our proposals.
We started striking to show them how serious we were about these proposals, and with the goal of making them take us and our problems more seriously; they need to recognize the value that we bring to the university. We’ve increased the rate of bargaining to multiple days a week, and we will continue to work tirelessly at the negotiating table to win a fair contract.
Can you tell us more about open bargaining? What has that been like?
It is a great way for people outside of the bargaining team to understand what is happening in the bargaining room. With closed-door bargaining, those of us not on the bargaining team wouldn’t be able to understand just how repressive the atmosphere is. It’s one thing to hear about it, but another to see it for yourself. We can see that what the HR reps are saying to our bargaining team is totally ridiculous. They’re gaslighting us and trying to threaten our bargaining team members. It also helps us know how to better support our bargaining team.
It’s an important organizing tool as well. You see HR stonewall our bargaining team members, but also, it’s a space where GEO members can come and talk with each other about what we do next, like how we might reframe some of our demands. So it allows the rank-and-file members to be a part of this process, [which is important] especially considering so many of the rank and file helped think about and draft this platform for years.
I’m part of the abolition caucus [one of of the committees within the union dedicated to organizing to dismantling the university’s policing system and providing just alternatives to safety], and we’ve been thinking about these demands since the 2020 strike. We developed them from deep research, shared them with members, and discussed the rationale for them. It’s not only extremely democratic and open, but it helps people to feel like they’re a part of that process as well. It’s been an extremely powerful experience, not only externally to see how HR shuts us down, but also internally to help sharpen our arguments and sharpen our collective process.
One moment that really stands out for me was when HR gave us their first salary counteroffer, which was a ridiculous, below-inflation, 2 percent annual raise. They admitted that they didn’t even take into account the cost of living when coming up with that number. For members in the room to hear that was powerful in and of itself, and then for them to be able to go tell all their colleagues what they heard was an order of magnitude more powerful.
What was the 2020 strike about?
It was during the start of COVID-19, but it was also the fall in the wake of one of the most widespread rebellions against policing in this country. The strike was an articulation of two demands: a safe and just response. It addressed COVID-19 and the university’s disastrous reopening plans. The university had done very little over the summer to make returning to classes in the fall a safe endeavor for GEO members.
The massive uprising against policing in this country was an opportunity for us to continue building on a long tradition within GEO 3550, which has been influenced by abolitionist unionism (part of a broader social justice unionism). We articulated our safety concerns around policing on campus, which has a long and disturbing history at the University of Michigan. It forced the university to talk about policing, even though it didn’t consider policing a subject of bargaining.
You’re now on the longest strike in the union’s history. Can you tell me a little bit about what’s changed since the last strike in 2020 and how the union got there?
When GEO was formed in the mid-1970s, workers went on a monthlong strike, making it the second-longest strike in our history, with the 2020 strike the third longest. So in the entire forty-nine-year history of the union, up until 2020, we hadn’t had a strike last longer than a week.
That history got us a $14,000 gap between our salaries and the cost of living, and a university that has some of the worst sexual harassment cases at any university in the country. What we’ve seen between 2020 and now is a big shift in the way our union understands what a strike is.
In 2020, we negotiated our contract without striking, let alone holding a preliminary strike vote, because COVID-19 began on the eve of when that would have happened. It just didn’t seem possible for us to go on strike at that time. It’s also worth noting that striking for public sector workers is illegal in the state of Michigan.
Then later that year, we decided to go on strike for a safe and just response outside of a contract campaign, which was pretty scary for our members. Not only had we just inked a new contract with a no-strike clause in it, but we would also be violating the public sector strike ban.
After the strike began the university sued us and filed for a preliminary injunction to end the strike. We didn’t really know what to do, and we weren’t getting very solid advice from our parent union. This fostered fear and internal divisions about the strike. And while I don’t think the strike was a failure, we probably ended it earlier than we should have, because of the threat of this injunction.
This time around, we were expecting another injunction, which was scary for all of us, but we were prepared to fight it. Eventually, we took it to court, and we beat it. The university spent well over six figures on fancy lawyers — the same people who defended Flint during the water crisis — and they still weren’t able to win.
I think this attitude toward striking is what’s really changed in the past three years. We have a different organizing approach, where we’re much more focused on empowering every member in the union to have ownership over the campaign, to be an organizer.
I was remote in 2020, but it’s clear this time that we are more prepared, more organized — even just telling the members that the strike will be illegal due to state law and the no-strike clause in our contract. Our members actually understand this, and they’re still willing to go on strike. We have spent a lot of time educating people about that.
I will start by distinguishing the injunction and then the legal judgments from the court. We didn’t really expect that the first injunction the university filed would be denied. We had to prepare to continue our strike in the face of an injunction, which actually has the power to force us back to work under the threat of heavy fines.
We were really stressed about this and made all sorts of contingency plans to deal with the legal consequences in this worst-case scenario. But then, unexpectedly, the injunction was denied.
This is different from the later decision made by an administrative law judge, who recommended a finding that we repudiated our contract by violating our no-strike clause. This decision is a recommendation from the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC) that GEO members return to work, but this is only a recommendation. MERC ultimately does not have enforcement power, so this is the major difference from the injunction we had defeated a couple weeks prior.
University of Michigan president Santa Ono has only been at the university since the fall of last year, just before bargaining started. What are your impressions of President Ono and what his administration has done since taking over?
We had high hopes for his being a new leader at a time when the university was coming out of multiple scandals related to harassment and misbehavior by top leaders at the university. We started working to build a relationship with him as soon as he got here. Our members have spoken at regents’ meetings, which he leads, and approached him in person every chance we get, trying to have real conversations with him about these issues that we’re facing as grad students — issues that can be solved in our contract.
At first, he really seemed to be listening, and I had high hopes that he would act in our favor and help us win a fair contract. But when push has come to shove, he’s been essentially hiding, and he avoids us whenever he can. He hasn’t made any moves to push the HR representatives toward bargaining with us in good faith. It’s been extremely disappointing seeing his response to our negotiation process and to the strike in general.
Alejo, you were one of the two people detained outside of a restaurant that President Ono was dining at. Can you describe what happened there?
The day graduate student workers had gotten our pay docked [for striking], we ran into one of President Ono’s black SUVs, where he was enjoying a fancy dinner. A few members approached him and asked where our paycheck was. We started picketing outside, and he ran out the back door to his police escort. This wasn’t the first time he’s avoided members trying to talk to him like this either.
Some of us approached the car to block it from leaving, and he called campus police on us. This was not on campus, mind you. Some of the research that we’ve done in the abolition caucus shows that campus police operate well beyond campus, and this is just another demonstration of that.
I was shoved into the ground by one of the cops, and then detained with a fellow comrade, Kathleen Brown. The cop kept saying I was resisting, and he ended up bending my hand and pushing me down. As we were being forced to kneel down for the detainment, a bunch of committee members started gathering outside. All of a sudden, in the middle of one of Ann Arbor’s major intersections, chants erupted: “Let them go! Let them go!”
I was about to be forced into the back of a police car; I was scared. But ultimately, I think in large part because of this community presence and the other GEO numbers that were there, we were let go.
The University of Michigan has embraced a diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, approach to address a lot of the issues that workers are striking over.
The university projects this woke, DEI image, but it does so without any material restitution. If you’re not materially fixing the problem, then you’re just paying lip service to it. That’s been very frustrating to our members.
The issues the administration claims to be concerned about are reflected in every single one of our demands. They can say they want a diverse campus that has first-generation college students, but if you make it so that you have to be independently wealthy to be a grad student here, you’re going to have a much less diverse campus. That’s what the living wage is about: anybody should be able to come to the University of Michigan and thrive here as a grad student, not just people who are independently wealthy.
If you’re going to say you want trans people to feel safe on your campus, that means you have to pony up the cash to get them the gender-affirming care that they need to survive. Similarly with harassment: they can talk about changing culture all the time, but you need to actually spend money to protect people. That’s why we’re calling for additional funding for workers who’ve experienced harassment.
Ditto with policing. They can set up a task force, but if they’re not actually going to put money into community-based programs that present a real alternative to the systems that have failed and have been disastrous for our communities, then it’s not going to solve the problem.
We’ve mentioned a couple of times the previous president, who was fired for sexual misconduct. The university thought that they could just fire him and the sexual harassment crisis would be over, as if he alone was the problem. They can pretend that it was his fault alone — he certainly contributed to it — but if they don’t address our proposals for sexual harassment, it will be their burden to bear when this continues to happen.
In the second week of the strike, President Ono recognized Professor Lilia Cortina for her work on harassment and workplace incivility — the same research that the union’s anti-harassment and discrimination group used to develop its proposals. GEO’s proposals, in line with Professor Cortina’s research, demand that the university offer graduate students a source of funding to give them a way out of discriminatory and abusive relationships. The demand also notes that the program should be independent from the university reporting mechanisms. So on the one hand, the administration lauds this research, while on the other it rejects our demand at the bargaining table by continuing to insist on mandatory reporting.
What have been the biggest challenges organizing within your respective departments?
At the department level, we had a hard time getting support from the faculty. In my department, graduate student instructors (GSIs) are teaching assistants, so we teach lab sections, hold office hours, and grade homework, but we’re not the primary instructors of the courses. When we went on strike, instead of pressuring the administration to settle our strike as soon as possible, our department leaders pressured teaching faculty to adjust the courses by canceling homework, changing exams to multiple-choice questions that can be auto-graded, or grading based on completeness, and so on, which compromised the education quality for students.
In some other departments, even though the striking GSIs are primary instructors of their courses, and they are the only ones who have interactions with their students, the administration pressured their department chairs to submit grades for students they did not teach themselves — even explicitly indicating in their emails that submitting full credit for all students is acceptable. It is a clear infringement on academic freedom and integrity.
Even though faculty in the history department decided to collectively withhold their grades in order to protest the administration’s actions, and some faculty in other departments publicly denounced the administration, most tenured faculty across the university have stayed silent during the strike, or followed the administration’s instructions to adjust their courses in a way that compromises the education quality for students. Lecturers who are sympathetic to the strike also find it difficult to not follow the administration, because the university has implied that it would discontinue their contract in the next year if the grades were not submitted on time.
Holding the line on grades is going to be a challenge, and there are difficulties with faculty who manage these courses doing the grading while we strike, aka scabbing.
In my department, political science, the faculty have no idea what it’s like for grad students. They don’t understand how expensive it is in Ann Arbor. Things like rent and food are more expensive here than in Chicago. Grad students are not getting paid enough to meet these needs. The faculty are just really detached from what our experience of the University of Michigan campus is.
Also, pretty much every striking worker missed a full month of pay because of the strike. We knew this was a real possibility going in. The university was very clear from the beginning that it would be docking our pay if we went on strike. In the past, we’ve been able to negotiate back pay from the university. But like I mentioned, these were one-to-three-day-long strikes, making it much easier to negotiate back pay.
What’s been incredible about it is that so many workers were willing to forgo their April paychecks, because they knew that the issues that we are struggling for are too important to accept the university’s line that we need to settle for less. If it means that we have to miss our April paychecks, so be it.
In my department, a lot of us are instructors of record. That means that graduate student workers have their own classes, which gives us a lot of leverage. I think it’s the case in other departments as well, where the only way for them to put bullshit grades in is for faculty to manually put in a grade.
In our case, faculty — meaning both lecturers and tenure-track professors — have been unwilling to do this. Some of them have even joined us in a sort of wildcat grade strike by withholding their grades too, which has led to discipline from the dean. As long as they do not enter grades on our behalf, we have leverage.
Something that’s unique about the Ford School of Public Policy, where I do most of my organizing, is that most of the grad students there are master’s students, rather than PhDs who make up the majority of our bargaining unit. This is both a challenge and a strength of our union.
The university has been trying to divide master’s students against PhDs by proposing a funding structure for PhD students outside of our contract that would give PhD students summer funding, which results in a higher pay for the year. But master’s students and others on the Dearborn and Flint campuses got left out of that proposal. This has required lots of one-on-one conversations, to help people understand our needs as a collective, rather than as individuals.
It’s also a strength, because before we even started bargaining, the union voted to keep central to our approach the idea that we will not allow the university to pit us against each other based on special interests or specific identities.
What challenges do international students face?
We pay hundreds of dollars in international student fees every semester, and the university gets millions of dollars in income from these fees every year. But it is not clear where this money is used.
We are asking for establishing an international student emergency fund that can help international students solve urgent difficulties. For example, during the pandemic, there were Asian students who could not afford the exorbitant flight tickets to visit their family members who were often dealing with serious medical conditions back in their home countries. International students can often face greater risks than domestic students do. We hope these vulnerabilities can be seen, and the fund can provide more support for our international students.