The fall semester is underway for most universities, where the effectiveness and the scope of their respective safe back-to-campus plans are being put to the test. And for many students and faculty, including the graduate student workers at the University of Michigan, the safety measures put forward are simply not enough.
Grad student employees at the University of Michigan went on strike from Sept. 8 - 16, to protest the university’s handling of COVID-19 campus safety and policing on campus. The strike ended after the GEO accepted the university’s second offer, but not because the university broke bread with the workers and agreed to their positions. The university filed a lawsuit against the students based on a century old union-busting rule that does not allow union workers to strike under their contract. And the law firm the injunction was filed through has also been involved with the Flint water crisis scandal and are involved with the lawsuit against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over her use of emergency powers during COVID-19.
Grad students are proud they were able to get some policies agreed to, like pandemic childcare options, more transparency in COVID testing, and agreements on how the university tackles policing. But make no mistake, the university forced the hands of the students to stop striking for the health and safety of themselves and their peers.
The lawsuit filed by the university would have put the union in contempt of court, and the graduate students felt that the best way to continue to help their other peers striking would be to not be under injunction. This would've included a $250 daily fine for each students’ continued day of striking. President Schlissel and Provost Collins felt the lawsuit was necessary due to the fact that under Michigan law, public workers are not allowed to strike while under contract. Both emphasized that they worried about the instruction time being missed out on, with Provost Collins calling the strike ‘disturbing and worrisome’ and that she did not believe the strike needed to happen since the issues at hand are outside of the union contract.
But what else were these grad students supposed to do? The university hadn’t been listening to their demands, many of which apply to the safety and well being of everyone on campus. Past negotiations on the contract were in April, and things have changed significantly since then with both COVID-19 and policing. These students had been trying to get the university’s attention on these issues, but the university chose not to listen intently.
Especially with regards to COVID-19, the students felt that they and their peers were not given enough protections and safeguards against the virus, which the continuing outbreaks on campus only seem to validate more. A statement was made by University of Michigan President Schlissel that these discussions should be taking place while instruction is still happening, in spite of the fact that part of the issues being raised by the strike were that they felt there wasn’t sufficient safety in place for instructors. This, among other statements from higher ups in the university such as Provost Collins, has an extremely condescending tone, asking folks to return to their work that they do not feel safe at. Schlissel went as far as to characterize the graduate students as “screaming so loudly you can’t even hear them.” This all also comes as the university faculty senate has voted no confidence of President Schlissel regarding COVID-19 campus safety.
Withholding labor seems like an adequate response to not being kept safe by your university, who also happens to be your boss. Though it is against Michigan law, the university could have listened to the grad students the first time around, or took a less punitive approach given that these students were fighting for the safety of themselves and others during a pandemic. The way the President and Provost have reacted to and talked about the strike only exemplifies the reasons the strike started.
This isn’t just a U of M problem though. The strikes on U of M’s campus are reflective of a larger sentiment that universities just aren’t doing enough for their students’ safety, and seem to be focused on their pocketbooks. It is true that many universities are lacking normal state funding that makes it harder to balance the budget. But the fact that universities have been ecstatic about their safety plans they’ve been spending all summer on, for them to end up to be severely lacking is frustrating within itself. Happening alongside that is things like Big Ten football reinstating its season and giving players COVID-19 testing, though still without pay for playing. Moves like these, for monetary gain for the universities more than anything, all while throwing punitive charges against students and faculty asking to be protected, is a slap in the face.
Eastern Michigan University has not been without its own flaws during its reopening. An email from the President was sent out each week over the summer, reading like deja vu as each week seemed to have the same rhetoric about how things were being discussed and how a plan would be out “soon.” But it wasn’t until Aug. 7, less than a month before classes started, that an email was sent out to students that included the reopening plan. And weeks later on Aug. 24, in-person classes were moved online and move-in was postponed for three weeks, due to the increase in cases on other campuses. Students began moving back in on Thursday, Sept. 17, and the remaining in-person classes resume face-to-face classes on Monday, Sept. 21.
The university also voted for a 2.9% undergraduate and 4.9% graduate tuition increase for the 2020-21 school year, despite the fact that students were hit hard by the economic ramifications of the pandemic. With classes mostly online for fall, this means that students will be paying more for this semester than ones previous, where they attended campus and had a hands-on learning experience. An online fee ($80 per credit hour) for classes that were meant to be online before the pandemic hit is also still in place. There’s also other fees specifically related to being on-campus that are still being charged. These are also being criticized, in part because opting-out of them is an option but that information is seemingly not widely dispersed.
It is no secret that universities have run themselves more like businesses than like the institutions of learning that they are. This issue isn’t just because of the pandemic, but it’s certainly been exacerbated by it. Students pay thousands upon thousands of dollars to these institutions every year, and they are not being incorporated into the conversation about how they will be protected and treated on campus. While nobody knows if the universities will willingly have a change of heart, we do know that students and faculty are still going to be affected by their actions. If universities are going to be focusing on their wealth over public health, students and faculty have a right to fight back, even if arbitrary contract laws warn otherwise.
It should raise eyebrows that universities are suing their students for fighting for safe working and living conditions. A “shut up and work,“ or “shut up and study,“ rhetoric utilized by universities is telling students and faculty that their opinions aren’t priority. Do not “shut up,“ keep fighting for what you know is right for you and your peers. Their livelihoods and yours are at stake, and we all have a right to have our voice heard.