University of Michigan Grad Students Strike over COVID-19 Policy
University of Michigan Grad Students Strike over COVID-19 Policy

University of Michigan Grad Students Strike over COVID-19 Policy

Student workers have cited a lack of transparency and a failure to implement rapid and widespread testing among their many concerns regarding the school’s response to the pandemic.

Amanda Heidt
Amanda Heidt
Sep 16, 2020

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Update (September 18): Students at the University of Michigan have reluctantly ended their strike, noting in a press release reported by Inside Higher Ed, “We won workable pandemic childcare options; substantive support for international graduate students; transparent COVID-19 testing protocols; and incremental but real movement on our policing demands.”

Graduate students and residential advisors at the University of Michigan have gone on strike over the school’s COVID-19 response plan, prompting the university’s president to seek a court-mandated temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to force students back to work. 

The student workers are striking with the support of their union, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), which represents more than 2,000 graduate student instructors and staff assistants. Since September 8, they have been joined by more than 100 residential advisers in arguing that the university did not provide adequate COVID-19 protections. 

“I personally have not spoken to a single person who thinks our COVID reopening plan was well conceived,” Silke-Maria Weineck, a professor of comparative literature and German studies at the university, tells Inside Higher Education. “What you have right now, I think, is a campus getting close to open revolt.” 

At the heart of the strike lies the University of Michigan’s fall plans for reopening campus. Graduate students, who are involved in teaching roughly 3,500 courses, claim the university has failed to implement adequate safeguards to protect the well being of students and faculty. As a result, they have stopped holding classes or carrying out research.

“We need a fair and just pandemic response,” Jeff Lockhart, a PhD candidate in sociology and a union member, tells Inside Higher Ed. “The university is disregarding all of the best evidence and advice from its own experts in terms of how they should be reopening.”

The university has reopened in a hybrid format, with more than 75 percent of its courses online, although students have been allowed to return to campus housing. Faculty and graduate students have said the administration largely accommodated their requests to teach remotely, but others felt coerced or misled after making their decisions to teach in person  in June, when community spread was lower.

The students are also striking against the university’s COVID-19 testing protocol, which is less stringent than those at other universities. Before allowing students back, the school tested only those students living in dorms or involved in fraternity organizations. Now that classes have started, testing is mostly limited to students with symptoms. 

While the school is conducting surveillance testing among undergraduates, participation is voluntary and testing is capped at 3,000 tests per week, Inside Higher Ed reports.

Michigan state officials recently released data showing that college campuses are creating new COVID-19 hotspots. Within the state, Grand Valley State University has 438 cases among its students, Central Michigan University has 271 cases among students, and Adrian College has 229 cases among both students and staff. The University of Michigan has so far reported 77 cases among its students, according to The Detroit News.

Students say they don’t feel supported by campus officials in trying to make campuses safe. “I do feel like they are not taking us seriously, like they can wait us out,” Alyssa Frizzo, a junior and residential adviser, tells Inside Higher Ed. “I don’t think throughout this whole process including the town halls they’ve really understood how serious we are about this.”

The union is calling for more testing and tracing, the option to switch to remote teaching without documentation, subsidies for student parents, support for international students, funding extensions, and rent freezes for those in campus housing, Inside Higher Ed reports. Among RAs, their demands include hazard pay, regular testing, personal protective equipment, and greater enforcement of safety measures.

In addition, the union has made cutting ties with local police and federal immigration authorities, as well as a 50 percent reduction in funding to campus police, mandatory for ending the strike. In an op-ed in The Michigan Daily, faculty from the University of Michigan supported these goals, adding that “policing is an important public health issue.”

While the strike is being denounced as illegal by university President Mark Schlissel—public employees are not allowed to strike in the state, and the union contract also stipulates a no-strike clause—it has drawn largely positive support from the rest of the university. More than 680 faculty members and 850 scholars from other institutions have signed open letters in support of the strike, and unionized construction workers and truck drivers have refused to complete work on campus, Inside Higher Ed reports. Dining hall employees had scheduled a walkout in solidarity, but the event was canceled out of fear of retaliation, according to The Michigan Daily.

Schlissel had previously filed an unfair labor practice charge against the union, but after students voted to continue their strike on Sunday (September 13), he pursued new charges, including the temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction.

Speaking in a video on Monday, September 14, Schlissel defended his choice. “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,” Schlissel said. “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 together.”

The union responded with a written statement stating, “we always knew legal action was a possibility, and this was a transparent part of our multiple member-wide discussions about the risks of authorizing a work stoppage,” The Michigan Daily reports. “Moreover, this legal move is a clear sign that withholding our labor is working: The University is feeling our power.”