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University of Michigan Graduate Students Strike for a Living Wage and a Broad Social Justice Agenda

The University of Michigan is once again threatening legal action in an attempt to end the strike, but graduate workers are standing strong and fighting for a contract that addresses the needs of the whole community.

Ryan McCarty

April 7, 2023
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Photo: Alyssa Mulligan

For the second time in three years, University of Michigan graduate students are on strike, fighting for a starting wage of $38,000 per year to meet the soaring costs of living in Ann Arbor. These demands come as the University’s endowment continues to balloon, surpassing $17 billion as of last year. Graduate students are also asking for gender-affirming healthcare options, better workplace protections against sexual harassment, and an approach to campus safety that doesn’t depend solely on a militarized police force. After raising similar issues three years ago, the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) ended the strike when the U of M administration threatened legal action that could disband the union, lead to job losses, and subject leadership to arrest. The administration poured immense resources into forcing them back to work, even going so far as to hire the same law firm defending the city of Flint in poisoned water cases to file the injunction

Mere days after the current strike began, the University again bypassed good faith bargaining and sued its own students, asking courts for an injunction to end the strike. Though the emergency injunction was denied, an evidentiary hearing is scheduled for April 10. The University administration continues to wait out further court findings, while complaining that GEO “refuses” to show up for additional bargaining sessions, even though those sessions were scheduled during the emergency injunction hearing this week. 

In their arguments for a court injunction against strikers, University of Michigan administration has claimed that the strike is causing “irreparable harm.” But the administration has fought GEO consistently throughout contract negotiations, which started in November, filing a December complaint with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission in an effort to impede open bargaining. These procedural quibbles led to delays in negotiations that have been worsened by the administration’s insistence that most of GEO’s demands are not fit for contract bargaining, effectively stalling discussion on most issues. Caroline Leland, a bargaining team member, graduate student worker, and union steward in public policy and environmental science, explains: “Some of our proposals are related to a safer workplace. This includes our unarmed emergency response proposal and protections for non-citizen workers (notice to workers if ICE is executing a search warrant, for example). Academic HR has argued that those are permissive, or non-mandatory subjects of bargaining, but we view them as central to workplace safety, which is a mandatory subject of bargaining.”

U of M’s administration argues that these are not directly related to salary and benefits, so they do not qualify as mandatory bargaining items, even though definitions of mandatory bargaining subjects set out by the National Labor Relations Board include workplace safety conditions like those GEO is arguing for. But the administration similarly refuses to negotiate on extending out-of-network gender-affirming healthcare options for students doing research and data collection away from campus (University negotiators actually shut down any discussion of this issue on International Transgender Day of Visibility) or financial compensation for the fieldwork required of social work graduate students. Both of these demands clearly are matters of compensation, no matter how the University administration wants to distort the issues. On April 3, GEO filed its own request to the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, asking them to direct the University to quit relegating so many issues to permissive status and come to the bargaining table in good faith. 

At the heart of these debates over mandatory and permissive subjects of bargaining is a question of control over the workplace, which is a central concern of a social justice approach to unions. Demanding better pay and benefits is important, of course, and a fundamental part of bargaining, but union workers can also collectively change their daily living and working conditions, taking democratic control of decision-making processes of the University, while demanding a safer environment for the community as a whole. U of M’s administration’s response to many of GEO’s demands has been to say that they are matters for the broader community and not just graduate student workers. In the case of GEO’s demand for a non-police urgent response team, for instance, the administration argued this demand “is a non-mandatory subject of bargaining under PERA [the Public Employee Relation Act] because it does not impact the wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment in the GEO bargaining unit; seeks to negotiate police services for non-unit members and the public generally; and infringes on the University’s management rights under PERA.” 

For the University administration — like all capitalist bosses — the problem with the kind of social justice unionism that GEO embodies is that it runs the risk of uniting not just the bargaining workers, but the entire community that stands to benefit from the changes the union is advocating. Leland described seeing this potential in the outpouring of support for GEO’s strike: “For me, it has been really inspiring to see the solidarity expressed by people from all over the country both on Twitter and on our GiveButter fundraising page. Other grad workers and other unions—both graduate unions and industry unions—have made it clear that they are watching us and drawing inspiration from our fight. At the same time, their attention and support gives us inspiration and motivation as well. 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.” In stark terms, Leland – who had no union or organizing experience before her work with GEO – describes the formation of a class consciousness that is at the heart of social justice unionism and is one of the main targets of anti-union actions and legislation. 

But more expansive views of a union’s role in the community are also well-equipped to take on unjust laws and restrictions on collective bargaining. This broader and longer-term focus is especially important in places like Michigan, where public sector worker strikes have been illegal since the passage of the Hutchinson Act in 1947, a condition that was reinforced by the Public Employee Relations Act (PERA) of 1965 and then further strengthened with regard to public school employees specifically in 2016. 

Bosses often point to these prohibitions against public sector strikes in an effort to scare away from withholding their labor in order to win better contracts. But, as this open letter from faculty on the request for an injunction points out, the Michigan Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that injunctions should not be used against public sector workers just for striking. The Court argues that, because of the early 20th-century uses of injunctions to violently jail union workers, such legal maneuvers against strikers should only be approved in the most dangerous situations. The circulation of this important guidance by the state’s highest court provides a very hopeful note for GEO, going into the evidentiary hearing on the University administration’s current injunction request on April 10. 

Still, it is not enough to depend on courts to decide fairly in disputes between public sector workers and their employers. An unjust law on the books is always a threat. Ian Robinson, a lecturer at the University of Michigan and President of the AFL-CIO Huron Valley Central Labor Committee, noted in a speech at a rally with strikers and allies that such laws are unjust and should be fought fiercely, both by unions during negotiations and by the general public through pressure on state government. Last month, Michigan became the first state in decades to repeal right-to-work laws, suggesting that the time might be right to further fight longstanding anti-union legislation.  

In the shorter-term, members of GEO are continuing their fight against obscenely wealthy bosses with deep connections to both Republican and Democratic politicians. But grad workers’ strength lies in their commitments to each other and in their ability to forge connections across different constituencies on campus and in the community at large. They will certainly settle the contract eventually, with at least some improvements to their broader working and living conditions, but they have already won a great deal in the tremendous organizing and solidarity they have built.   

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