GEO on Strike at the University of Michigan

Graduate student workers at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor went on strike today. Our editor, Elias Khoury, spoke with Spyros Kasapis, a YDSA member represented by the union.

Why are you striking?

We are striking because we demand a safer working space for us and our colleagues, especially during these uncertain times we are going through. Striking was our last resort, but with an administration that runs the university not like an educational organization, but rather like a for-profit business, the GEO [Graduate Employees’ Organization 3550] members felt that taking action was essential. 

What are your demands?

There are multiple demands that GEO is discussing with the administration. We want the guaranteed right to work remotely, more robust testing, a funded one-year extension to degree milestone requirements, increased international student support, and compassionate and flexible subsidies to parents and caregivers. Lastly, we are on strike in order to disarm campus police and to decrease police funding by at least 50% this year. For more information about our actions and demands I would advise people to follow GEO’s social media (Facebook and Instagram).

What happened in the run-up to the strike?

Unlike the University, GEO is run democratically and takes into consideration the voices of all its graduate student members. There was a series of general meetings where the potential strike and its impact were discussed. The membership voted to proceed with the strike.

How has quarantine and digital classes changed organizing? What’s a digital picket line?

The unprecedented situation we are going through since the beginning of the pandemic has changed a lot of how we organize. For the most part, and especially during the summer, the GEO actions (such as general meetings) were moved online to ensure safety and accessibility for all members. Moving all meetings online has both pros and cons and whether they are overall more beneficial for what we advocate has always been a matter of discussion. In such times, members of GEO have been pretty creative on digital and socially-distanced actions, and one of them is the digital picket line — an online gathering/forum of all members that cannot attend the actual picket line where we discuss the progress of our strike. Today, during the digital picket line, GEO also organized a phone zap, email, and a Walk-Out Teach-In.

What is the history of the grad student union?

The history of grad student activism here at Michigan is very long and all GEO members are very proud of it. An extensive account of the GEO achievements is posted on the history section of our website. In a few words, GEO has achieved first of all Certification (ensures the legality of grad students organising), numerous contracts and wage increases and big wins on diversity, equity and inclusion aspects of grad students life. To underline the rich history of GEO and the graduate students activist movement at the University of Michigan, I quote Howard Zinn: 

The idea spread through 1936. In December of that year began the longest sit-down strike of all, at Fisher Body plant #1 in Flint, Michigan. It started when two brothers were fired, and it lasted until February 1937. For forty days there was a community of two thousand strikers. […] The “punishment” consisted of extra duties; the ultimate punishment was expulsion from the plant. A restaurant owner across the street prepared three meals a day for two thousand strikers. There were classes in parliamentary procedure, public speaking, history of the labor movement. Graduate students at the University of Michigan gave courses in journalism and creative writing.” (from chapter 15 of A People’s History of the United States)

Have there been recent labor actions or relevant political developments nearby?

Not that I know about, which makes our strike pretty unique in the area. As you can imagine, though, across the country there have been numerous actions from workers in a variety of occupations. What is very nice and shows the solidarity between workers of all backgrounds is that this morning, UMich construction workers joined our picket line and strike! 

What has YDSA’s role been in organizing for and supporting the strike?

YDSA members have done as always a great job of advocating for us by sharing posts, writing articles like this and of course, joining our picket lines and strikes!

Why is it important for graduate workers to organize?

It is important for all workers to strike. History teaches us that the labor movement organized by workers’ unions has achieved all the benefits that we take for granted in today’s America (40 hour week, healthcare, voting rights, etc.). Of course — especially lately with the election of Donald Trump — it is evident that there is a long way until workers in the United States get what they deserve. Grad workers are no different than any other type of worker! 

How can YDSA members around the country support the strike?

As said before, the best way to stay involved is to join our social media, talk to your friends and show your support in and outside class. We can’t wait to see you at the picket line! 

Spyros Kasapis is a graduate student worker at University of Michigan and a YDSA member. Elias Khoury is an undergraduate at the University of Michigan and an editor for The Activist.

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