Above photo: Abigail Finlay, left, a University of Michigan mathematics graduate student instructor, marches with fellow protestors in front of the University of Michigan’s Angell Hall on State Street in Ann Arbor, Tuesday, September 8, 2020. Lon Horwedel, Special to Detroit News.
A day after the Graduate Employees’ Organization voted to extend its strike, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel is seeking an injunction to get graduate students off the picket lines and back to teaching.
Schlissel is asking Washtenaw County Circuit Court to require GEO members to return to work by issuing a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction. In a video released Monday afternoon, he described the request as a necessary step.
“Following the announcement that GEO will continue to strike and not teach for at least five more days, I made the very difficult decision to seek help from the courts so we can resume all of our remote and in-person classes,” Schlissel said in the video. “We welcome the opportunity to discuss the issues that GEO has raised. The University’s offer to continue talks remains open. What we cannot welcome is the profound disruption to the education we’ve promised our undergraduate students.”
Schlissel later added that “we don’t want anyone to feel threatened simply for wanting to go to class.”
“Going to the court was our only choice after learning that the strike would continue,” Schlissel said.
GEO’s strike began last Tuesday in response to the University’s plans to reopen for the fall semester. Some of GEO’s demands include the universal right to work remotely without documentation, more robust testing plans and a partial reallocation of funds from the Division of Public Safety and Security to community-based organizations.
In a statement Monday, the union assured the striking graduate students that no individual member was at risk because the University had filed for an injunction.
“We’re disappointed that President Schlissel has chosen to immediately abandon these promises in favor of trying to shut down our strike by brute force,” GEO’s statement reads. “Shame on the University of Michigan for using their immense resources to bully their graduate workers out of striking — instead of using those same resources to create a safe and just campus for all.”
The union’s members voted overwhelmingly to reauthorize their strike Sunday night, saying their demands were not met.
In a Sunday night email informing members that the strike would continue for another week, GEO leadership said the strike had made a major impact on campus.
“Last week, we proved to University leaders, to the University community and to each other that GEO is committed to fighting for a safe and just community, and we are not prepared to stop until we get it,” the email read.
The union, which represents more than 2,000 graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants, previously voted to reject the University’s proposal on Wednesday, which gave GSIs and GSSAs the ability to cancel class if a student did not wear a mask and pledged to increase the transparency of COVID-19 case data but did not address the union’s demands regarding policing.
Other University groups have echoed GEO’s demands for a safer pandemic response — more than 100 residential advisers announced a strike on Wednesday, arguing that the University did not provide adequate COVID-19 protections. Dining hall employees also conducted a “slow down” of operations across campus Friday after initially planning a walkout. The walkout was postponed due to fear of retaliation from the University.
The request for an injunction isn’t the first time the University administration has sought outside involvement in the ongoing labor dispute. On Tuesday, the first day of the strike, the University filed an unfair labor practice charge against GEO, asking the Michigan Employment Relations Commission to weigh in on the strike. The charge names GEO President Sumeet Patwardhan.
In an email sent to all undergraduate students Wednesday, Provost Susan Collins called the strike “disruptive, confusing and worrisome,” noting that it violates both state law and the union’s contract, which was ratified in April.
“The strike violates Michigan law; in addition, GEO has agreed by contract not to take actions that interfere with the University’s operations, in this case, your education,” Collins wrote in the email. “Nonetheless, the University’s team will continue to meet with GEO in good faith to resolve remaining issues.”
GEO has repeatedly noted that the strike is illegal, including joking about it online. In a document addressing concerns about the work stoppage, GEO described possible consequences for graduate students who participate in the strike.
“If GEO strikes when the contract is in force, the organization may not be able to collect dues,” the document reads. “We would also be open to lawsuits and could be forced to pay damages. If the contract is not in force, the likelihood of a lawsuit is lower, but UM could still get a court order for us to stop striking and if we do not obey it, the coordinators of the strike (the GEO officers) could be placed under arrest. GEO has done work stoppages in the past, and the university has not retaliated.”
In its statement Monday, GEO leadership said they were “not surprised” that the University had turned to the court system.
“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 statement reads. “Moreover, this legal move is a clear sign that withholding our labor is working: The University is feeling our power.”
In the video released Monday, Schlissel said the University administration welcomed the chance to negotiate with the union but would not allow the work stoppage to continue indefinitely.
“The issues raised are very important and we’re committed to addressing them, but we can’t do it at the expense of our students’ education,” Schlissel said. “We need our classes to be in session while we work out our differences together.”
Schlissel and Collins will hold a public conversation on Tuesday to discuss COVID-19, campus planning efforts and the impact of the pandemic on members of the community.
“No questions or topics related to these issues will be off-limits,” an email announcing the event reads.
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