Crossing the Picket Line (or not): What Did it Cost You?
November 2, 2020
A New Culture of Care
The lasting conditions of GEO’s #StrikeForSafeCampus have felt all the more relevant in the days since the university’s careless, but not altogether surprising, announcement of the county’s Stay in Place order, directed at UM’s undergraduate community. For students already feeling frustrated, betrayed, exhausted, anxious, etcetera, this mid-term announcement serves as yet another blow to a community already struggling to keep its head above water. The University continues to test the limits of the question we all seem to be asking ourselves each day: how blatantly can this institution assert its utter lack of respect for its students and staff? We do, however, have to give credit to our university leaders for the inventiveness with which they continue to approach this question. I, at least, am impressed by their devotion to these encore performances of disrespect. If nothing else, they have mastered the art of deflection.
The time that has passed since GEO’s Strike feels simultaneously—and dizzyingly—compressed and dilated. In the six or so weeks since the strike officially ended, the university has dedicated itself to articulating that great “Michigan Difference” with astonishing indiscretion. The bedrock sentiment of this “Difference” is, of course, our Wolverine Culture of Care. To its credit, the University has demonstrated, with precision, that It Does Care. It cares enough about ensuring the continuation of graduate student labor that it will serve its own graduate community with an injunction and thereby threaten the integrity of the GEO itself; it cares about ensuring that landlords will still be able to collect rent from tenant-students (because, financially speaking, they are tenants first!); it cares, of course, about the continuation of the football season. This is no longer news to the campus community, but merely reiterates the lack of respect displayed by the University toward its students and staff.
However, as we endure what feels like a year’s worth of events that have unfolded (and continue to unfold) since the end of GEO’s strike in mid-September, I linger on the incredible show of solidarity that has remained between undergraduates, graduate students, and university employees (many of whom are also, of course, undergraduate and graduate students). In the first few days of GEO’s Strike, the university attempted to sow discord between its undergraduate and graduate students, alleging that striking graduate student workers were doing an overt disservice to undergraduates. We witnessed the many ways that this tactic was quite quickly rendered futile: undergraduates showed up to both the in-person and virtual picket-lines alongside GEO members. They refused to cross these picket-lines and chose not to attend classes in solidarity; they stood by their striking instructors and withheld their labor from those classes. Similarly, GEO members stood with striking RAs and UM Dining workers and continued to support their actions even after the GEO strike ended. The fact that all of this occurred within a pandemic is an even greater testament to how the undergraduates, graduate students, staff, university employees, lecturers, and faculty members have reformed the culture of care. It’s one thing to cross a literal picket-line of striking workers; it’s another to refrain from quietly logging onto a Zoom class from the confines of a dorm room or bedroom, where nobody really has to know whether or not you’ve crossed the virtual picket-line. The two-week endurance of GEO’s strike—plus the RA strike and action of UM Dining workers—is a direct result of the deliberate, active care expressed by the members of this community for one another.
Like many members of this community, I struggled with my personal feelings toward the University and my place here prior to this semester, prior to GEO’s strike and its aftermath. I’ll be the first to admit that I have never possessed that overt “Go Blue!” enthusiasm. While the conditions leading up to the strike, the conditions that led to its end, and the aftereffects that we continue to experience have only reinforced this position. I also have a newfound sense of pride in being a student at this university, working adamantly with others against the institution and the administration. I am proud to have stood—and to continue to stand—in solidarity with fellow students, staff, and faculty. It is clear that we protect each other when the University chooses to neglect and overtly defy its duty to perform this work.
GEO Strike Reflection Letter
Dear Summer 2020 Caitlin,
In a few weeks, your life is about to change massively. Amidst all the changes you have experienced this year in terms of the pandemic, there will be more in the coming weeks and months. You’ll learn how to live independently, make new friends for the first time in years, and adjust to being a college student. Along with these changes that every freshman goes through, you’ll have the additional challenge of doing all of this while simultaneously following the public health requirements of the university, which include wearing a mask, social distancing, and attending online classes. And, just a heads up: there will be a surprise strike during the second and third week of classes, starting with the Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs), then expanding to the Resident Assistants (RAs), and finally the dining hall staff.
You may be wondering, “How does this affect me? I’m not in any of those positions.” When the strike was first announced, I wasn’t particularly fazed by it. Honestly, I was relieved to have one less class to worry about and have a little extra time to try making friends. This moment of relief probably lasted about ten minutes. I then remembered how much my parents are paying for these classes, and even though two classes does not seem like that much in the grand scheme of things, I’m here to tell you it is. We only have certain classes for 13 weeks, and they're not cheap! Both my mom and dad were upset about this. My family, friends, and I were all mad that something else had to go wrong after everything that has happened this year. This first semester would already be hard enough without a pandemic going on, and the public health guidelines are another huge obstacle in adjusting to college life. This strike is just the cherry on top.
Aside from the money aspect, the most inconvenient part of this strike is the fact that all of my assignments were on pause. I could not adequately gauge my typical workload for this semester and get acclimated to having five classes. I did not have much work from any classes and I didn’t have to juggle overlapping assignments or due dates during the first week. Initially, I assumed that I would establish a routine in the weeks to follow, which would include balancing homework, classes, and personal time. I already felt overwhelmed, and in the time waiting for class to resume, I had a lot of anxiety about how I would be able to juggle everything once my schedule was back to normal.
In addition to the GSIs, some of the RAs and dining hall staff went on strike. The latter two strikes did not affect me as much, because I did not have any packages or mail at the community center to be distributed (the mail slowed down because the RAs cut down hours working/sorting mail). The dining hall staff went on strike for just one day. It was interesting to see all of these somewhat unrelated groups coming together to march around with picket signs, chanting for change. I saw groups striking outside many major buildings. I passed them almost every day when walking to the Union or various dining halls around campus. This helped me realize how dedicated those on strike were, because (at least for me), it would take a lot to voluntarily march in a circle for hours on end (my feet would hurt!).
Looking back now that the strike is over, I honestly don’t have many recommendations for different actions you should take when you face this strike, but I do have some advice. It may seem like everything is going wrong and maybe some things aren’t meant to be; there are so many obstacles. Keep in mind that everything happens for a reason, and the strike was partially in place to help keep you safe and healthy. Do not get stressed out about the workload and getting readjusted after working on creating a routine; it will all be okay. Respect the actions and opinions of others, and work to understand the perspective of the strike participants, even when you do not understand. I wish that at the beginning of this, I had realized that everyone is doing their best to make life livable, and there is no “agenda” to make this the worst possible semester to be a freshman. There are also thousands of people experiencing the same feelings as you about not only the strike but going through these things for the first time too. You are not alone, and it will be okay.
Freshman Perspective on the GEO Strike
Back in April, about a month after the Coronavirus became a serious threat in the United States, I remember sitting in the kitchen talking with my mom, reflecting on the plot twist inflicted upon my senior year of high school. What began as a two-week “bonus” vacation turned into me spending my eighteenth birthday without my friends or family, missing senior Spring break, and losing weeks of instruction in my AP courses. The more disappointed I became about my senior year falling apart, the more hopeful I became for a fall semester on campus, almost as a way to make up for the unconventional end to my high school experience.
Looking back now, I realize that I was mistaken. While I wholeheartedly support and understand COVID-19 regulations, they have greatly complicated my transition into university life. Group gatherings are constrained, dining halls have limited options, and masks are still mandatory everywhere you go. I suppose when I imagined my first semester of college that I didn’t expect Michigan to have recovered entirely from a pandemic, but I did expect to at least be able to attend all of my classes.
The GEO strike began soon after the semester started. I believe the strike affected freshmen very deeply. Many introductory classes that freshmen take are taught by GSIs. For some, this meant missing a discussion section or two. For others like me, it meant missing all instruction in important courses like English and Calculus for nearly two weeks. While, in the long run, this didn’t severely impact my overall education, the strike made academic success temporarily more difficult.
The cancellation of classes may have disrupted my adjustment to my new schedule and rigor of coursework, but the part that impacted me most heavily was the moral decision it required me to make. Reading through GEO’s demands, nearly all of them aligned with my own beliefs. Fostering a safer community through more intense COVID-19 protocols and a reduction in policing on campus are both things I fully support, but it came at the cost of my education. This was a crossroads, of sorts, which allowed me to decide whether or not I would be crossing the picket line.
Not attending classes would mean missing out on material, which would bog down my grades and, consequently, my GPA. Assignments were continuing in many of my classes, and by standing with GEO, I would have had heaps of missing work. Meanwhile, my parents forked over thousands of dollars for me to come to campus and gain the necessary knowledge to earn an undergraduate degree. It felt wrong to call my parents and tell them that I was skipping class: something that they had spent years working and saving to help pay for.
The final deciding factor when considering whether to cross the picket line or not was when I thought about what skipping class would mean to the University, meaning whether or not it would convince the administration to seriously address the concerns raised by GEO. It became evident to me that the University wouldn’t lose anything with my absence. They were still receiving a check for my tuition, no matter what my attendance looked like, and the only person losing in this scenario was me. The University’s unwavering stubbornness even when classes were cancelled made me realize that missing a week and a half of organic chemistry was not going to spur them into action.
All in all, this decision was not something I took lightly. The biggest impact crossing the picket line had on me was the mental strain of grappling with my decision not to stand by my beliefs.
As the strike came to an end with the University taking the situation to court, I gained an insight into the way the University regards the opinions of the student body. The University’s offers were disappointing, to say the least, and the resulting agreement left much to be desired as it barely addressed the concerns the GSIs raised. It’s difficult to be a freshman and watch as the school you so carefully selected neglects valid issues relating to the safety and comfort level of students on campus.
The strike, overall, was incredibly eye-opening and created a very unique start to my freshman year. For the rest of my time at the University of Michigan, I will always be able to look back on this experience and remember where the administration’s values and interests truly lie.
Striking while the Iron is Hot
In early April, nurses at the Sinai-Grace’s emergency room (ER) in Detroit participated in a work stoppage asking for more help with the overwhelming flood of COVID-19 patients. Instead of their concerns being met, they were ordered to get back to work or leave. This brief work stoppage was part of a broader movement of nurses in Southeast Michigan taking a stand against unsafe working conditions and the failure of hospitals, especially ERs, to address those conditions. When asked about the Sinai-Grace nurses, Michigan Nurses Association president Jamie Brown told CNN, "Eventually, a tipping point is reached where the best thing any registered nurse can do for their patients, their families, and their coworkers is to speak out rather than remain silent."
Nursing is one of a number of professions in which participating in a work stoppage has a high cost, not only to management and to the workers themselves but to a third party as well—in this case, patients. The nurses I know who have participated in work stoppages feel tremendous unhappiness at the thought of patients left without care. But, when administrators fail to listen to workers' needs, withholding labor remains the most powerful tool at workers’ disposal to defend both their own safety and the long-term safety of their patients.
Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs) do not provide the same life-or-death services nurses do, but like nurses, our labor actions affect a third party: our students. When the Graduate Employees’ Organization went on strike this past September, my biggest worry was not whether I would be fired or retaliated against; it was how the strike would affect my students. GEO picket signs declared things like “The university works because we do,” and it’s true: GSIs make up a sizable chunk of student contact hours, and our contributions to student support help make this massive institution feel more personal. This small classroom experience becomes particularly important in times of crisis, like this semester. Our decision to withhold our labor at this time likely resulted in increased stress and difficulty for undergraduate students who were already going through a difficult period.
It was not an easy decision for me to go on strike. It was precisely my role as a GSI, to provide care and individualized support to students, that moved me to participate in the work stoppage. I care about my students, I care about my coworkers, and I care about my own health and wellbeing. I am all too aware of how the short-term effects of the strike hurt students, but our demands for long-term improvements to the working conditions of graduate workers and to the safety of students, had we won them, were worth any harm the strike produced.
Those demands included a transparent COVID-19 plan, a universal remote option, and a reduction in campus policing, among others. The importance of a transparent and health-informed response to COVID-19 by university administrators and a safe, flexible workplace for GSIs should go without saying. The campus policing demands, however, have been met by some with skepticism.
Questions of campus policing are relevant to COVID-19 bargaining because of the university’s decision to expand policing under the guise of public health. Resources which might have gone towards COVID-19 testing went instead towards increased policing. An op-ed released on September 14, 2020 by faculty from the School of Public Health, describes how policing is a public health issue with particularly damaging effects on people who hold marginalized identities; and, as professor Ashley Lucas mentioned on twitter, the use of police on the University of Michigan’s campus has resulted in the incarceration of a Black student in the recent past.
Racial justice is not the only reason to question increasing police presence on campus. As a person who was arrested in 2018 for protesting a Neo-Nazi at Michigan State University -- and held in jail for 3 days before the charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence -- I am all too aware of the chilling effects campus police have on freedom of expression. On our own campus in 2019, administrators enlisted UM police to detain and arrest students who participated in a sit-in. These students made clear that they would vacate once a date was set for a meeting with the president. A police encounter could easily have been avoided. As long as they are easily accessible to university administrators, however, police will continue to be the first rather than last resort.
I was disappointed when GEO membership voted to end the strike before we made more material gains. I feel we would have done better to continue striking until the injunction, fundraise as much as possible until then, and then vote to continue or not based on the funds at our disposal. The precedent we have set by succumbing to fear worries me. Despite this concern, I think the strike resulted in several non-material wins. Although our union allows us to bargain and to file grievances when our rights are violated, our main power as workers (especially with an anti-union government) lies in our ability to withhold our labor. By going on strike, we have demonstrated to the university that when we threaten to strike, we mean it. And, perhaps more importantly, we have demonstrated this to ourselves.