• Analysis

We didn’t win our demands for safety on campus, but our strike showed the power of student organizing

For graduate students at the University of Michigan, organizing a campus-wide strike strengthened the solidarity, membership and visibility of unions on campus.
Members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization Local 3550, the graduate workers’ union at the University of Michigan, block an intersection in downtown Ann Arbor during their September 2020 work stoppage. (WNV/Luke Dillingham)

As the winter university semester is set to begin, the coronavirus is surging. The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, like many universities reliant on tuition dollars, tried to reopen in September with a “public health-informed” semester, as the university called it. That meant a mix of in-person and remote classes and dormitories operating at about 70 percent capacity.

Throughout the summer, the graduate workers union at the University of Michigan, the Graduate Employees Organization, or GEO, and Local 3550 of the American Federation of Teachers, had also been preparing for the fall semester by organizing against an unsafe campus opening in the face of a global pandemic. We are members of GEO and stewards to our academic department, and had first hand experience in this organizing process.

GEO’s membership called for a more robust testing program, an option for graduate students to work remotely, child care subsidies for caregivers, and better resources for international students. In a further call for safety on campus, we also demanded radical changes to university policing, including demilitarizing and defunding campus police. The university, however, was intransigent and uncompromising.

As a result, during the first weeks of classes, GEO members voted to strike. This decision was bold: it was both a breach of our newly signed contract, and a breach of state law (in Michigan, it is illegal for public sector employees to strike). After a whirlwind nine-day campaign, with undergraduate resident advisors also walking off the job, dining hall workers instituting a work slow-down, and thousands supporting our effort both in the Ann Arbor region and across the country, our strike ended with little movement on our demands. However, the solidarity that we built during the strike lays the groundwork for future local organizing, and serves as a model for other campus organizers looking to win better conditions for students, workers and community members.  

Throughout the semester, as the university refused to alter its original pandemic plan, coronavirus cases climbed. In late October, increasing COVID-19 numbers led to the Washtenaw County Health Department enacting a two-week stay-at-home order for all University of Michigan undergraduates. The statewide Michigan order in November moved the university entirely to remote classes. Because of the near-disastrous fall, the spring semester plans look entirely different. Most courses will be fully remote, and the university is urging undergraduates to stay home.

The University of Michigan, it seems, is adopting some of the recommendations from GEO — months too late, however, and only after threatening to sue our union out of existence.

The critical work of department stewards 

As stewards, we serve as the liaisons between graduate student workers in our departments and the rest of GEO. With a membership of about 2,200, departmental stewards are the primary sources of knowledge and information for union members and thus are key to member mobilization. Michigan is a so-called “right-to-work” state, so graduate workers can still enjoy the benefits won by GEO without becoming members and paying union dues. It’s up to stewards, then, to inform their departments about the importance of worker organizing and why graduate student workers should join the union.

We had to initiate a fundamental shift in the way that many of our peers viewed themselves in relation to the university.

But that’s often a tall order. The declining power of unions in the United States — from more than a third of private sector workers belonging to a union in the 1950s to a mere 6.2 percent today — has meant that our generation has largely grown up without seeing what unions can do for workers. And this absence of an ingrained union culture has a considerable impact on the ways in which our generation understands and interacts with union organizing. 

This presented a considerable challenge in organizing our fellow student workers during the strike. Along with keeping a pulse on the concerns of GEO members in our department, we expended much of our organizing energy on communicating the importance of the very idea of a union. We had to initiate a fundamental shift in the way that many of our peers viewed themselves in relation to the university: They weren’t just students, but employees, and as workers they deserved a say in their working conditions. While this work was compelling, it was at times arduous, and drew away from time that we could have spent organizing pickets, mobilizing for discrete actions, or educating undergraduates. 

While we often found this work tedious, other stewards saw the strike as an exciting moment for real-time political education and activation. Ember McCoy, a steward in the School of Environment and Sustainability, described the strike as an exciting opportunity to educate her peers about the importance of GEO’s power. “It gave us the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, you know how we have great health care coverage? That all came from GEO!’” 

She noted that the strike also raised GEO’s profile, which is particularly important in a workplace in which most workers stay no more than a few years. “Besides during contract negotiations every couple years,” she said, “GEO sort of sits below the surface for most students.”

The strike undoubtedly changed that.

The need to foster solidarity

At an “elite” university like the University of Michigan, the cult of meritocracy cultivates a deeply competitive and atomizing social space — creating an environment that is hostile to union organizing, and concomitantly, hostile to the cultivation of an ideology of solidarity. And there are tens of thousands of people affiliated with the university with varying roles and priorities: undergraduate students, graduate students, professors, lecturers, staff and more. To build power, we need a strategy that connects with a wide range of university stakeholders and we must directly combat institutional individualism and cultivate an understanding of collective power as a robust force for change.

Failing to effectively build solidarity has considerable consequences, and we witnessed that directly. The absence of a foundational ideology of solidarity, compounded by the atomization induced by working and learning in quarantine, created an environment in which student workers were quick to question union leadership and sometimes feel disconnected from decision making processes. Add to this any pressure from professors that striking members worked for (and often had close personal relationships with), and it was sometimes difficult to convince our peers to hold the picket line. 

GEO 3550 picket signs in the doors of the Rackham Graduate School. (WNV/Peter Martel)

This severely constrained the power that GEO could have in meaningfully disrupting business-as-usual: had all graduate students, GEO members and non-members alike, jointly refused to attend classes, university operations would have ground to a halt, providing GEO with far more leverage. Unfortunately, while 79 percent of GEO members voted to strike, students continued to attend classes, professors continued to teach, and many failed to even consider the fact that doing so constituted crossing picket lines.

This phenomenon was not unique to graduate student workers. While some faculty were willing to articulate their support privately — and 712 faculty members signed an open letter to the university in support of the strike — few were willing to take more tangible action by cancelling classes. 

Bargaining for more than wages and benefits

The work of building solidarity can facilitate a different vision of union organizing — that of the union as a steward of the community. This is exactly what GEO did with our strike, mobilizing for issues beyond graduate worker salaries: Our demands focused on the safety of those in Washtenaw County as a whole. Not only does this build the power of the union by allying with other community members and organizations, but it’s a model for winning community demands.

One of the best examples of this strategy is known as “bargaining for the common good,” in which unions work with community allies to use collective bargaining as a tool to improve the entire community. The strategy was famously demonstrated by the Chicago Teachers Union in 2012. Then, 26,000 teachers walked off the job — to considerable media backlash — for green spaces, more equitable class sizes and homeless student coordinators. They went on strike for their students

Bargaining for the common good can serve as a “cohesive strategy for how unions [can act as] social justice organizations coalescing a movement,” said KB Brower, organizing director for Bargaining for the Common Good, a project of the Center for Innovation in Worker Organizing at Rutgers University. 

Graduate students were on strike for demands that were intimately connected: a campus that was both safe from a deadly virus and from the danger, which disproportionately affects students of color, posed by the presence of militarized police.

For instance, instead of starting the semester by listening to the summer’s calls for justice against police violence after the police murder of George Floyd — or designing more effective bulwarks against the virus — the university increased policing by launching a program to monitor students for COVID-19 compliance. However, after months of a separate organizing effort led by the Students of Color Liberation Front — an umbrella group representing several underrepresented minority student organizations — the program was altered to reduce police presence, and then canceled entirely.

An opening for future organizing

Unfortunately, the strike ended with little movement on any of our demands. After we rejected an initial offer that offered meager progress, the university filed a court injunction against GEO, which, if granted, threatened to bankrupt the union. Days later, we were presented with another offer which bore a striking resemblance to the first; this time however, GEO’s very existence was under threat. Motivated more by fear than by satisfaction with the offer, we voted to accept. 

By the end of the strike, enough rank-and-file members had heeded the call that nearly all vacant steward positions were filled.

While most members were largely disappointed with this outcome, it would be a mistake to overlook the strike’s very real, though less tangible, important impacts on the university community. 

One such impact was a considerable expansion of organizing capacity. During the strike, GEO saw a spike in membership, making up for the backslide brought about by remote teaching. Moreover, while high membership turnover means that departments often go years without stewards, by the end of the strike, enough rank-and-file members had heeded the call that nearly all vacant steward positions were filled. This critical boost in organizing power was a shot in the arm. Operating in a right-to-work state, with a hostile university administration, the success of future campaigns hinges on strong, engaged membership.

Outside of GEO itself, reverberations of the action were felt across the university. A hundred resident advisors, emboldened by our strike, staged a simultaneous work stoppage and won significant concessions from university housing — as did the dining hall workers who engaged in a work slowdown. The strike also raised the profile of the burgeoning All Campus Labor Coalition, a collective of university unions. 

“I think there’s increased labor organizing and activism on campus because our conditions are increasingly intolerable, and the prioritization of profits over people is increasingly evident,” said Liz Ratzloff, GEO’s staff organizer. 

While outward faculty support for GEO was sparse, the strike had an interesting influence on dynamics in some departments. Venky Nagar, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, credited the strike with changes in how faculty interact with each other. Junior faculty speak up more in faculty meetings, and there’s a renewed focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Members and allies of GEO 3550 picketed at different locations across campus for each day of the strike. (WNV/Conner Swift)

We asked Nagar if he thought the new culture was really about our strike, since millions of people had gathered in the streets this summer to force a reckoning with racism. “What the GEO strike did was show that [the university] is not immune” to these conversations, he said. “Suddenly this [action] erupted, and [equity issues were] brought home to people.”

The strike also offered important lessons in organizing effectively in a university setting. Student and faculty organizers alike identified political education as a critical precondition for activating peers. They also realized that effective political education requires a groundwork of strong personal relationships. We experienced this firsthand: It was through intimate, often individual conversations that minds were changed — conversations that required trust and care. Similarly, Shane DuBay, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, noted that his most effective faculty organizing conversations were with peers with whom he already had established relationships. 

While by no means a novel idea in organizing, this underscores the critical value of the department steward, especially in a setting in which year-over-year turnover is so high. If patient conversations among trusted peers are the site of political change, diligent stewards are perhaps the union’s most important asset. Activating new, engaged stewards should be a key focus of the union moving forward, so that the next time we engage in a job action, we’re more prepared to bring the rest of the university along with us. 

If we’re ever going to stop losing, bargaining for the entire community is the future of labor organizing.

But we do believe the GEO strike could be a first step to winning both worker and community demands. Rather than an outright loss, the strike “saved the union,” according to Sasha Bishop, the steward for the ecology and evolutionary biology department. “Prior to the strike, we were losing power and credibility [and] membership was declining,” she said. 

Collective actions like strikes get people organized and motivate them enough to actually join movements. Such collective work also pushes against rampant individualism and a university culture of ego and self-reliance.

Bishop also thinks that the strike should reorient our strategic organizing priorities: It’s job actions that have the power to disrupt business-as-usual, not merely negotiating on the university’s terms. 

Indeed, we were forced to end the official strike because of the injunction, but we could have used our momentum to continue agitating for the university to accept our demands. GEO members have six weeks of paid medical leave, so we could have organized a mass sick-out. Instead, the tremendous energy that we had built across the university and region fizzled out rather unceremoniously. 

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But as Bishop reminded us, there is reason to celebrate what we accomplished: We pushed the “Overton window” for campus labor organizing. We activated more than 1,000 members to walk off the job for a more safe and just campus. Dining workers, resident assistants, and construction workers stood in solidarity with us. We increased our membership and activated more departmental stewards. We boosted our profile — citywide, statewide and even nationally — and according to Ratzloff, in the months since the strike, campuses across the country have reached out to GEO to seek guidance on their own campaigns.

We didn’t win, but we staged an abolitionist strike on a university campus. “Sometimes we do the right thing and lose. You don’t know what you’re setting up to make happen in the future,” Brower said. 

If we’re ever going to stop losing, bargaining for the entire community is the future of labor organizing. After all, Brower added, “even having one example [of a radical strike can] totally transform what’s possible.”

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