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University of Michigan Graduate Student Strike Continues in the Face of Increasing Retaliation

After losing a court injunction hearing, the University of Michigan administrators have given up any pretense of continuing negotiations with its own graduate student workers. Instead, the university has turned to attempts at intimidation to try to break the strike.

Ryan McCarty

April 24, 2023
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University of Michigan strikers stand outside Rackham Graduate School holding signs.

Graduate student workers at the University of Michigan have been winning a series of small skirmishes in their strike against the huge billionaire institution. But the university administration has shown the darker side of their corporate-style approach to negotiating with their own students, turning increasingly to violence in the face of community support for strikers. 

The strike, which began on March 29, came after several months of negotiations, and were often stalled by administration in moves to limit the format of bargaining meetings. When the roughly 2,400 graduate student workers overwhelmingly voted in favor of the strike, the administration immediately filed for an injunction against the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) chapter representing grad workers. But at the evidentiary hearing on April 10, Judge Carol Kuhnke denied the request, noting that any harm caused by the strike was not significant enough for court intervention. 

The hearing was a particularly embarrassing one for the university. At one point, its representation grossly suggested that they were only able to find one undergraduate student to testify against graduate workers because, like in a domestic violence case, witnesses might not show up because they fear retaliation. The judge ordered the comments stricken from the record. The court also heard testimony from one department chair who admitted to locking out graduate workers as punishment prior to confirming whether they were on strike or not. 

With the threat of an injunction aside, GEO hoped to move forward with negotiations, but the university administration continued to refuse to discuss cost of living raises and the union’s broader social justice demands. Instead, the administration announced on April 20 that any graduate students who had not already completed a work attestation stating that they had not been striking would have their April pay cut to $100. In a mark of especially dark irony, when graduate students picketed the pricey downtown restaurant where university president Santa Ono was having dinner that evening, U of M police came from campus and detained several strikers who were only later released when bystanders protested that the picketers had broken no laws. In a press release distributed on April 24, the administration further threatened to deploy police violence, noting that, in the case of any “activity that interferes with the rights of others or the lawful operations and functions of a building, or other unlawful behavior, DPSS officers will intervene.”  

At the same time, the administration increased the pressure on faculty to scab out their own students, calling on departments to alter instruction and, as the end of the semester nears, modify course materials and assessments to make sure that students are assigned grades by the end of the semester. Because graduate student workers are often the instructors of record, this means that final grades would be assigned by someone who was not present in the course all semester and may never even have met the students in question. The point, for the administration, is not about education but avoiding disruption, so grades are rendered more or less arbitrary. On April 21, the typically cautious Faculty Senate fiercely rebuked the administration’s call to “outsource grading demands,” calling it “a violation of professional ethics.” 

But the university was unabashed and tried to further leverage institutional power by claiming that, if final grades were not entered by someone, University offices would be forced to cancel student financial aid for the coming school year. In a letter to faculty, Dean Anne Curzan stoked fears that withholding grades would negatively affect students, claiming that “delayed grades and/or NRs or Is as final grades could result in students having their federal loans recalled, their financial aid stopped, their eligibility for sports and attendant financial packages stopped.” 

However, this warning misrepresents how aid is distributed. A consultant from the Federal Student Aid Information Center indicated that these decisions are based on individual institution’s policies. The University of Michigan does not have its hands tied and, in fact, has authority to determine whether a student continues to be eligible for aid. This fact is inadvertently underscored in a similarly threatening email to department chairs from Associate Dean Tim McKay, in which he warned that, immediately after the semester ends, “the Registrar’s office will run a report to determine the academic standing of every student, and on May 4th, the Office of Financial Aid will determine whether each student is maintaining satisfactory academic progress.” 

However, that rapid grade audit is a choice the university is making, fully aware of why student transcripts might be missing grades. This move is designed to explicitly pit GEO members against their students. If aid to students is affected or any other academic eligibilities are disrupted, it will clearly be by the university administration’s order, part of their increasingly aggressive strikebreaking tactics. 

The authoritarian and anti-intellectual nature of the administration’s attacks have shaken the campus, leading to increasing calls from workers in every corner of the university to organize a response. Unfortunately, workers at the University of Michigan do not have a clear way to push back against the administration in a more coordinated way, like workers from across Rutgers’s campuses have recently. Graduate student instructors and lecturers are members of separate unions that bargain in alternating schedules, while most staff and all tenure-track faculty are currently not unionized. Further complicating such divisions is the fact that graduate student research assistants are barred from unionizing as part of a series of laws designed to weaken labor. A new bill introduced into the state senate this month would lift those restrictions, leaving GEO the task of organizing research assistants across departments. Such organizing tasks could be the first steps toward the creation of a coalition of grad students, post-doctoral researchers, lecturers, tenure-track faculty, and staff, alongside other workers and community members. 

That work is certainly going to be challenging and slow, but grad students workers and their allies are laying the groundwork, increasing support among faculty members and making connections with construction locals who have frequently respected the pickets since early April, slowing some of the University’s large-scale profit development projects. As the semester comes to an end, allies in Southeast Michigan and from much broader circles will be even more necessary. Vocal support of grad student workers (including pledges by faculty not to scab at the end of the semester), condemnation of the university administration’s tactics, and donations to GEO’s strike fund will all be necessary. The University of Michigan seems determined to be the “leaders and the best” of strike breakers, but they are facing an increasingly unified community, ready to act together and hold out and win even in the face of such overwhelming financial and institutional powers.    

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