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Striking Workers at the University of Michigan Are Building Powerful Solidarity

University of Michigan graduate students have been on strike for one month. While these workers have faced harsh conditions, the broad connections and class-consciousness they are developing are worth celebrating.

Ryan McCarty

April 29, 2023
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The morning of April 28, I was stumbling around making coffee, checking the strike news on Twitter. It’s been about a month now since my graduate student instructor colleagues voted overwhelmingly to strike, facing down the legal and financial powerhouses at the University of Michigan. I only had to scroll for a second, then I just sorta had to sit down. 

There was a picture of about 20-30 people in a beer garden on a gray springy afternoon, fists raised and smiling. The message was from grad students, lecturers, and faculty from UC Santa-Cruz; they had held a fundraiser and were donating $600 to the University of Michigan grad student strike fund

I don’t know why this one touched me so deeply. Over 4,000 supporters have donated to the strike fund so far. Individual donations have ranged from a few bucks to amounts in the thousands. Scrolling through the list of donations, I found a math professor who wanted his students to know that they “have at least one person in solidarity in the math department” and a few of the non-unionized graduate student researchers who donated exactly what their union dues will be when the state of Michigan passes a bill that will make it legal again for grad research assistants to unionize. There were messages of solidarity from university staff, undergrads, lecturers, parents, and unions around the country. Lilly Wachowski (yes, that Lilly Wachowski) even donated. Maybe that’s why this handful of smiling faces hit me. They were just some folks doing what they do, but linking up and standing in support of others who need a hand.  

Strike funds are important because they help to satisfy the material needs of workers who have been cut off from their pay by their truculent capitalist bosses. Grad student instructors were already in financially precarious situations. Before negotiations began last fall, the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) chapter representing grad student instructors surveyed members and learned that most could not afford an unexpected $500 expenditure. 80 percent of graduate students at Michigan are rent burdened, which means they pay more than a third of their wages into rent. One in five had delayed medical treatment due to cost. 

So when the University administration did not pay graduate instructors who were on strike throughout April (and also docked pay, according to some reports, of instructors who actually did work), the strike fund became that much more important. What had previously been somewhat of an abstract cushion turned into a clear way to help make rent. 

But that morning, I was thinking even beyond that, to the place where strikes reveal deep reserves of class consciousness and solidarity. We are drowning in messaging that speaks the language of capitalist realism, telling us that there is no alternative. We live in a competitive market, we are told, and people need to fend for themselves and their families. Organizing and dreaming of something else is naïve utopian dreaming. 

In the face of that dour worldview, I want to point to everything I’ve been seeing during the GEO strike because the last month has just dripped with solidarity and newly discovered connections across a wide spectrum of people. The community has rallied around the strikers to provide what it can. Local restaurants are providing food and coffee. The UAW auto worker local and the University medical campus nurses deliver pizza and home-made cookies. Every day, the community strike kitchen feeds crowds of striking workers, allies, and non-affiliated people who are hungry. There are dance parties during pickets that are so joyful that the millionaire lawyers on the University of Michigan Board of Regents huff about them like stodgy dads from Footloose.  

The class consciousness raised by the strike is palpable. Caroline Leland, a master’s student in public policy and environmental science who had never been involved in union work before but is currently serving as a departmental steward and negotiator, explained the evolution in her own thinking as she realized that “This strike is about more than just this one contract, it’s about workers everywhere getting paid a fair wage and feeling safe at work. What we win will set a precedent elsewhere. It feels amazing to be part of something so powerful.” Striking grads recognize that some of the construction workers who have picketed in solidarity are ambivalent about some of the items in GEO’s platform, but they picket just the same because they know the importance of labor solidarity. This kind of unconditional support between workers is providing an important lesson for graduate students, many of whom do not come from families or communities with deep union ties. 

Even the tenure-track faculty seems to be showing signs of growing class consciousness. After the administration pushed to get grades submitted on time by assigning alternative graders who had no connection to the course and students involved, the generally conservative faculty senate has been stirred to life and called the administration’s move “a violation of professional ethics” and “an infringement on academic freedom,” signaling a growing awareness that concerns of graduate instructors are shared by their tenure-track colleagues. In a reflection of this growing awareness, several departments have issued statements that they will withhold grades in solidarity with GEO. An un-unionized faculty, frustrated by the administration’s indifference to simple statements of condemnation, is beginning to see that the leverage they hold is as workers who can make a difference by withholding that labor. 

All of this is not to paint a pretty picture over the dire situation and the danger University of Michigan workers face at this moment. But during a strike, the connections between workers are laid bare and we learn that our strength lies together. 

For those of us from working-class backgrounds, this kind of community support is familiar and it’s something that we can share during these moments of crisis. When I was growing up in a blue collar Michigan town, my dad was constantly putting together spaghetti dinners to raise money for somebody’s medical bills. My mom and I shoveled and mowed halfway down the block because the elderly folks living in our neighborhood couldn’t do it themselves. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) hall and the dark little corner bar were — and still are — hubs both for people who had needs and people who had a bit of extra time to address others’ needs. It’s just what working people do because if we don’t hold each other up, then we all fall down. 

That’s what I was thinking about yesterday before the current public bargaining session began. Certainly, the university administration will continue its aggressive assault on its workers. There will probably be repercussions for lecturers and tenure-line faculty who are grade striking in solidarity. There will be hardships and none of it was necessary. The University could have come to the table and agreed to pay its workers a living wage and assure them of safe and dignified working conditions. They didn’t do that. But the GEO strike is doing what people do: coming together and finding ways to be supportive of each other, respectful of diversity, and excited by the prospects of what we can build together.

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