U-M says ‘profound disruption’ to education promised to students can’t continue; asks court to require GEO members to return to work and renews offer for talks

September 14, 2020
Written By:
Rick Fitzgerald

Following the Graduate Employees’ Organization vote Sunday to extend its strike through Sept. 18, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel said U-M can no longer allow to continue the “profound disruption to the education we’ve promised our undergraduate students” and authorized seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against the union strike.

“We want our great classes to continue, our students to learn without interference and we don’t want anyone to feel threatened simply for wanting to go to class,” said Schlissel in a video to the campus community. “Going to the court was our only choice after learning the strike would continue. We’d much rather our classes be in session while we work out our differences.”

Among GEO’s concerns are the health and safety of those teaching in-person. About three-quarters of the graduate student instructors teaching this term are doing so remotely and only 22% of undergraduate credit hours are being delivered with some in-person component. Decisions were made as locally as possible by schools, colleges and departments based on pedagogic needs and instructor health concerns and preferences.

Schlissel reiterated that the university welcomed the opportunity to discuss the issues GEO has raised and noted the university’s offer to continue talks remains open.

“The issues raised are very important and we are committed to addressing them—but we can’t do it at the expense of our students’ education,” he said.

Addressing concerns

In response to GEO and concerns from the community, among other things, the university is increasing the scale of its surveillance testing for the virus that causes COVID-19 and pledging greater data transparency. In addition, Rackham Graduate School Dean Michael Solomon continues to work with graduate students on ways to provide support for extra time to complete their degrees due to COVID-19 related disruptions to their Ph.D. research.

U-M is asking Washtenaw County Circuit Court to order striking members of the GEO to return to work. The union represents about 2,000 graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants.

In an earlier email message to the university community, Schlissel and Provost Susan M. Collins said they and other campus leaders were committed to discussing the presence of police on campus, another community-wide concern, and would facilitate a “thoughtful engagement with the broader university community to surface both problems and opportunities” related to policing on campus.

That message was in response to concerns raised by GEO about policing on campus and other matters that fall outside the parameters of the GEO contract. Some of those are the same issues GEO raised during contract negotiations, but withdrew in April when it ratified its contract with the university.

The president, provost and Division of Public Safety & Security Executive Director Eddie Washington, are committed to immediately addressing any issues around policing that arise in the community, and opening a broader conversation around how we approach policing and public safety on campus.

GEO calls strike

GEO went on strike Sept. 8, citing a number of concerns ranging from COVID-19 testing to a demand that the university cut funding to campus public safety and security services. On Sept. 9, the university made an offer, which GEO leaders supported, to address GEO concerns. However, GEO members rejected that proposal, have offered no new proposals of their own, and are continuing to strike.

According to the U-M court filings, “Not only are GEO’s members interfering in the university’s mission to educate students by unlawfully withholding their labor, they are encouraging impressionable undergraduate students, over whom they exercise significant authority, to forego their education.”

GEO members were provided by their union with a template to use in their university email that explained that they were on strike and asking undergraduate students to not attend class in support of their strike. That template says this:

“I am withholding my labor as a (GSI/GSSA/ graduate student) as part of the Graduate Employees’ Organization strike for a safe and just campus. This strike overlaps with and stands in solidarity with the nationwide #ScholarStrike for Black Lives on September 8th & 9th. If you are a faculty member reading this email, we encourage you to cancel your classes for the duration of both strikes. If you are an undergraduate student, we ask that you do not attend class. Do not cross the picket line—either in-person or digital.”

The university argues in its court filing that GSIs “hold enormous sway over the undergraduate students that they teach.” Approximately 90% of all U-M undergraduate students are enrolled in at least one course that is either taught or co-taught by a GSI.

Students locked out of classes

Undergraduates report that their remote classes have been shut down and access to course content has been blocked so they are unable to continue their studies. GEO communications show that the union’s intent is to be as disruptive as possible, particularly to undergraduate students. According to the university’s court filing, undergraduate students have been pressured to support the GEO strike and urged not to attend their classes.

If the injunction is granted and GEO members still refuse to return to work, those who refuse to work could be held in contempt of court. Also, the union could face civil damages for conducting a strike that violates the terms of its contract with the university. The strike also violates state law prohibiting public employees from striking.

The university’s Sept. 9 proposal clarified the availability of COVID-19 supplies; added details on testing; further clarified how to address face-covering compliance in classrooms; committed additional staff to provide outreach to international graduate students; and provided temporary enhancements to student child care subsidies.

GEO represents only graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants. It does not represent all graduate students, nor does it represent Michigan Housing residence advisers or Michigan Dining student staff members, some of whom also have indicated they would withhold their services.

GEO ratified a new three-year collective bargaining agreement with the university in April. That agreement guarantees GEO members a pay increase of at least 3% in each of the next three years, even as many university employees face salary freezes and furloughs. The agreement also included a “no strike” clause.


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