How Graduate Students Organized Their Recent Strike in Michigan

Eric Dirnbach, a former member and past president of the Graduate Employees’ Organization at the University of Michigan, interviews a current member and GEO activist about their recent strike. Photo courtesy of GEO.

The Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) is the union for more than 2,000 graduate student instructors and staff assistants at the University of Michigan. I was a GEO member, department steward, steering committee member, and president for one year, in the late 1990s during two contract negotiations which both had two-day strikes. I have written about how the union organized in that era and am very familiar with GEO’s strong 50 year history of member democracy and militancy. 

GEO continued that tradition with their recent historic seven-day strike around COVID-19 and anti-policing issues, its most significant action since the union’s month-long first contract strike in 1975. This was also interesting because GEO struck during the contract they settled last spring. The union was soon joined by a strike of the Residential Advisors (RA), which recently ended. After GEO rejected the administration’s first offer, and extended the strike, it announced an improved settlement

On COVID-19 issues, GEO wanted better testing, contact tracing, and safety plans for campus, the right to work remotely, subsidies for parents and caregivers, more support for international students, and support for all graduate students in the form of timeline and funding extensions, emergency grants, and assistance at U-M housing. On policing, it wanted a demilitarized workplace, cuts to the campus police budget and to end ties to local law enforcement and other agencies.

The union won on some of these issues, announcing that it achieved “workable pandemic childcare options; substantive support for international graduate students; transparent COVID-19 testing protocols; and incremental but real movement on our policing demands, including a commitment to a revision of the Michigan Ambassadors program, a commitment to substantive consultation with the undergraduate Students of Color Liberation Front about changing the role of the police in the revised program, a commitment to meetings with Regents on public safety, and a commitment to a policing task force that works with the SoC LF and GEO, evaluates best practices for DPSS information transparency, and issues a public report with recommendations on policing.”

I reached out to GEO about how they organized this strike and how the union’s organizing has changed since my time there in the 1990s. This interview with member Jeff Lockhart has been edited for length and clarity.

What is your role in GEO and how long have you been a member?

I’m Jeff Lockhart, a sociology PhD, a GEO member for six years, and a member of the GEO COVID Caucus since April 2020.

This strike was principally about COVID and police abolition issues. Let’s talk first about COVID. This was perhaps the most significant education strike so far in the country concerning the protocols for returning to the classroom during this pandemic. How did the union organize around that issue over the last few months?

Yes! It was historic in many ways—I think also the longest GEO strike since 1975, and the largest higher ed strike since the (very recent, much more protracted and brutal) COLA strike in California

GEO has had a COVID Caucus working hard since April on these issues. It had about a dozen active members (twice-weekly 90-minute meetings) and three dozen people on the email list. Our efforts are summarized in the meeting minutes from our faculty town halls.

To develop our initial platform/open letter, we circulated surveys to as many grads as we could and got hundreds of replies with both multiple-choice and open-paragraph responses. People told us their needs, concerns, and worries. We tried to synthesize those into a letter, then circulated the letter back to membership for feedback. We also sought feedback from Rackham Student Government (RSG), Graduate Rackham International (GRIN), Students of Color of Rackham (SCOR), Lecturers’ Employee Organizations (LEO), and other organizations. Some people wanted contradictory things, but in general I believe we charted a course that addressed the concerns of everyone. Then we revised to get the “final” letter, which received over 1,800 signatures in early May. 

After that, we continued to gather feedback and refine our proposals, but we focused more of our energy on making change: trying to meet with admins, getting press coverage, writing statements and op-eds, staging protest events like car caravans, die-ins, etc. 

In July, other parts of GEO kicked into high gear to help. They were always there and supportive, but summer (especially right after a contract is won) is a down time for the university community generally and a leadership transition time for GEO. Suddenly our merry band of fast moving activists had the full institutional knowledge and might of GEO’s many members, leaders, and arms. We moved a bit slower, crafted statements more carefully, did more detailed research, and stepped up formal negotiations with university HR. We also reacted to newly released information about Fall plans from the university (seems like one or two plot twists a day from July onward) and to our general failures to get any movement on issues over the summer.

Frankly, it wasn’t until August that faculty and most other groups on campus started to really pay attention and begin making demands as well. We were thrilled to have them on board, but disappointed when some people coming to the issues in August hadn’t heard about the work we did all summer. People (understandably) were so busy with their own situations early in the pandemic that they didn’t have capacity to worry about the university’s Fall plans. I think they also trusted UM would deliver a good plan if they just waited. When they saw in August that the “plan” was neither good nor very well planned, support and coalitions grew rapidly. Still, I think everyone in the Caucus wishes it didn’t have to come to that. UM could have just worked with us in May.

How did the members become interested in working on anti-police policies, which are typically considered an issue outside of the contract? Of course there is the recent George Floyd murder and other similar tragedies, but were there also local cases of police brutality and murder in Ann Arbor or on campus?

GEO has had police and racial justice issues on the platform for years—they were part of the 2017 contract platform, for example. GEO’s 1975 campaign and month-long strike won demands for affirmative action among other planks. Student activists have opposed an armed campus police force since it was created in the early 1990s in order to quash student protests.  The renewed global attention to ongoing police brutality and BLM activism in 2020 encouraged membership to vote to include policing demands on our platform. In general, this is part of GEO’s long history of “bargaining for the common good.” 

GEO has a long history of striking after contract expirations, but this strike was rare since it occurred during a contract. What did the membership think about that and how did the union organize on this issue?

Membership overwhelmingly voted to strike and then twice more to continue striking. We all knew the legal risks and that it violated our contract—every General Membership Meeting (GMM) explained that in detail. I think the general sentiment among members is that for urgent issues of health, safety, and justice, after five months of every other tactic failing, we had no choice but to walk out.

The administration filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge and sought an injunction against GEO. This reinforced how risky the strike could be. How did members overcome their fears about this?

Ultimately, we accepted a deal before the court hearings for either of those happened. We would have lost those in court, no doubt, and that put a lot of pressure on us. But we did secure some substantial wins from the strike, so it isn’t accurate to say legal action alone ended the strike. We got better childcare funding. We got real movement on PhD funding extensions (it’s not the offer we wanted or deserve, but it is light-years away from our summer conversations with the graduate school, Rackham, where they refused to even consider it). We forced real, campus-wide conversations on policing and racial justice that raised consciousness among many faculty, staff, and students who never considered it before. It wasn’t in the offer text, but the university announced massive expansions of their testing program, including saliva testing, just when the strike ended. Staff and undergraduate workers were emboldened to organize and even strike, and many are now showing renewed interest in unions of their own. We drew campus- and nation-wide support and attention, coalitions that will last into the future. The faculty senate voted no confidence in a UM president for the first time ever, in over 200 years. 

Back in the 1990s, the union’s leadership group was an elected Steering Committee, with I think about 10 folks, and several dozen department stewards who were on the Stewards Council. Is it the same today? What organizing structures were in place this year, or had to be built or strengthened?

I’m spacing on the membership of the steering committee, but it includes at least the elected officers and the (co)chairs of every working group and committee, and I think a few others? In GMMs, they presented steering committee recommendations to membership as “17 in favor and 3 against” or similar, with lots of talk about how “we’re all individuals free to make our own determination, don’t feel pressured because the union president personally likes one option better,” and so on.

This summer was a total mess because we had to onboard all the new stewards and transition other leadership roles after the contract campaign ended in April. Then the pandemic happened. It took a while for everyone to get up to speed again. We couldn’t have in-person interactions with members. We didn’t even have a full list of members until after the strike started, since teaching assignments were still being finalized. Stewards and members organized department Zoom meetings and town halls. We had phone banking/texting campaigns giving members options for getting involved by reaching out to other members, and we encouraged members to have conversations with people they knew personally. New ideas were generated by members along the way, such as the faculty and staff town halls, which each had hundreds of attendees. Outreach was often very decentralized.

There was some surprise early in the semester when faculty, staff, and undergraduates started hearing talk of a strike and asking why don’t we try talks and negotiations, gathering input, and other things. University administrators mass-emailed everyone that the strike came out of nowhere and they invited GEO to come talk it out instead. So we had to do a full education campaign that it’s been five months, we’ve been trying to make progress with talks, here’s the details of the strike and the scale of the feedback that went into crafting these demands, and so on.

In our 1990s contract negotiations and strike planning, we always tried to prioritize one-on-one member conversations as much as possible. How does that work today? What training exists for this? What organizing information tracking does the union have?

Stewards were key here, along with general members. Communications and other committees made a bunch of material in a “strike materials” google drive, stuff like how to talk to faculty, students, and peers; template letters of support and email away messages; quick responses to common critiques; etc. We shared those widely and had members and stewards use them for one-on-one outreach. We also held trainings for picket captains which included talking to passers by on the street and so on, which, from my observation on the pickets, were very successful. We also had a few unofficial point people among faculty and staff who passed us information and who shared our information with their networks. Their liaison work was essential for helping us know what ideas and concerns were circulating, and for getting us in contact with those communities. Unlike the university president, we can’t just mass email our propaganda to the whole university and spread misinformation at the click of a button—not that we want to deceive anyone, but that admin regularly lied to and about us in mass emails and press statements. There was so much gaslighting. 

For members unable to be on a physical picket line, we had a “virtual picket line,” where people would come onto Zoom calls and have some camaraderie with activities to do together, such as making phone calls, sending emails, texting, and event planning. Our communications team swelled to over 30 members, volunteers who coordinated media outreach; engaged members and the community directly on twitter, instagram, facebook, and tiktok; crafted memes; and drafted statements. We had 1,200 picket shift sign-ups on the first day, 1,500 on day two, and 2,000 on the third day, both virtual and physical.

You had several union Zoom calls during the strike with over 1,000 members, which is amazing. How were these calls organized and run? 

By the seat of our pants. We had a member, our web admin and tech wizard, who was the host for all our video conferences. He worked basically full time (more: we pulled 16+ hour days during the strike) looking into security, capacity, moderation, settings, and more. He moderated chat and muted/unmuted people in real time. Each call, we learned something that didn’t work from the last and made changes. Members had strong feelings on all of this, often conflicting. Some demanded open chat, others insisted it was unacceptable. Sometimes chat devolved into vicious personal attacks (it only takes a few people out of a thousand…). I often worked backup tech on the bigger Zoom calls, testing new features or settings before meetings started, posting links and answering Q&A during meetings to free up others to talk or run the technology. Overall, though, I think they were a wild success for democracy in the union. Huge participation. Many more people than usual were able to speak, ask questions, etc. Even our “small” GMMs this summer with 750 people were way larger than normal times, when GMMs meant getting 100, 200, or 300 people into a physical room. One especially useful feature was we did Google Forms early in meetings where members could say how they were leaning and why, then everyone could scroll through the answers and get a sense of other members’ logic. Then we had live discussion. At the end we voted for real.

GEO’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), announced it would support school COVID safety strikes. How was the support from AFT-Michigan and AFT during the strike?

I didn’t deal with them directly, but they were amazing. So many hours from both their organizing staff and their lawyer. They also sent people to help advise the undergrad RAs who went on strike with us, way above and beyond the call and also so very necessary.  

In the 1990s there was something called the All-Campus Labor Council, which unfortunately wasn’t that strong, but was a way for the unions to try to work together. Does that exist today, and how is GEO’s relationship with the other unions?

Yes, it exists! They paid for the Howard Bunsis Report on the UM finances/endowment, which was an audit showing (surprise) they had plenty of money and the austerity crap was a lie. They helped with some coordination among unions, and issued their own statements. I didn’t work with them directly, but I know GEO did. 

The support of other unions was absolutely critical to this GEO strike, as it has been to our strikes in the past. At least six other unions respected our picket lines and walked off the job during our strike: Teamsters Local 243, International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 2, Ironworkers Local 25, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 252, Sheet Metal Workers Local 80, U.A. Local 190 – Plumbers, Pipefitters, Service Technicians and Gas Distribution workers. Our sibling union, the Lecturers’ Employees Organization (AFT Local 6244), issued statements of support for our strike and the non-unionized undergrad RA strike. Many academic unions around the country sent solidarity and support—for example the graduate union at NYU, GSOC-UAW Local 2110, donated $480 to our strike fund. GEO has not forgotten all these unions’ support in the past, nor will we forget their support this September. We know we’re all stronger together. They can rely on us in the future. 

This settlement of course didn’t give the union everything it wanted. What do members think of the settlement and how will the union keep organizing around these issues this fall?

There’s a wide variety of thought both between members and, I think, within each individual person’s mind. At least, I am of mixed feelings. The Michigan Daily put out an early report on the end of the strike that made it sound like GEO was totally crushed by the brute force of the administration and the campaign was a total failure. Some people definitely feel that. I do sometimes. But I don’t think it’s a complete picture. There are a lot of wins, both for material conditions of people’s lives and for ongoing organizing power. I outlined some of them above. Strategically speaking, I think emphasizing our successes is important, and I know many others agree. None of us would suggest denying the disappointment. The university could and should have engaged us with good faith negotiations and offers. Their legal attacks, while technically allowed on paper, were neither required nor necessary. The faculty senate voted to condemn the injunction and ULP and demand the university withdraw them. But of course the faculty senate is slow and toothless, so that came last-minute (two hours before the GMM that ended the strike) and didn’t shield GEO from impending legal action. 

We will absolutely keep organizing on all member and community needs. We continued to provide support for the RA strike after ours ended. Our working groups on each platform issue remain active. Our grievance committee is doing outreach to help members use the new (strike-won) process for transitioning to remote work. Because of the strike, GEO members and other campus groups seeking racial justice will have seats on the university’s new policing task force and fight to make it effective and transparent, etc.