• Becca Dzombak

The graduate student strike was imperfect, but reminds us why unions are important and why they work

It’s been a few days since we voted to end the graduate student union strike at the University of Michigan, I am still tired. I am still stressed. I am still anxious. Striking was not an easy decision for anyone I’ve talked with, and going through with the action of withholding labor or joining a picket line is an incredibly difficult choice to make. Striking can be divisive and contentious – not only between people, but also within an individual, pitting personal beliefs against valuing the union. What I have come to realize over the past week is that the strength of a union comes from its members’ ability to come together and fight for ideals they believe in, whether those ideals are the specific demands of the strike or the existence of the union itself.

So much about this fall, and this strike, is unprecedented. The union had not held a strike since 1975, when the nascent union was in the throes of its first contract negotiations, and the recent strike was the longest work stoppage on campus since 1975 as well. The union had never before gone on strike outside a contract negotiation period and was forced to only because the pandemic arose following the contract signing earlier this spring. The administration had never been this angry (at least recently) with the union for a work stoppage. There has not been a pandemic in the United States of these proportions since the AIDS crisis in the 1980s that killed tens of thousands of people. Although campuses were not shut down then, fear of outbreaks and a reprehensible government response were in the same vein as the situation we find ourselves in today. There has not been this much attention on campus racism arguably since the civil rights protests of the 1960s. How we proceed, then, inherently sets a new precedent and the tone for the rest of the year, and for other campuses, too.

The union was striking for two central demands: a better response to COVID-19 on campus, and making campus more just by changing campus policing. The requests for more testing and precautions are not unique to our campus; across the country, students, faculty, and staff are frustrated by academic institutions’ reopening plans and worried by the fact that even on campuses with rigorous testing, like UI at Urbana-Champaign, outbreaks are already occurring. It feels like with universities facing budget problems, the bottom line is being prioritized over public health, both on and off campus, in our communities. The union’s COVID-19 demands were first delivered to university administrators in May in an open letter, signed by over 1,800 students and faculty; they were dismissed as too expensive and largely followed by silence. Similar letters and op-eds have appeared at universities like UC San Diego, Cal Poly, the University of Kansas, Yale, Penn State, and more. These worries are why the Michigan residence hall staff, which comprises non-unionized undergraduates who have been facing unsafe working conditions, opted to strike for protections. It’s why the dining hall staff, in similar situations, walked out of their jobs. And it’s why numerous graduate student unions from across the country contacted GEO to let us know they are with us in solidarity.

The policing demands, which include decreasing the campus security budget, eliminating lethal weapons on campus, and cutting ties with city police and ICE, were added in a recent union membership meeting in response to increased scrutiny of systemic racism on campuses. While the Michigan community typically agrees that concerns over racism and inclusivity need to be addressed, a lack of unified support behind their role in this strike complicated discussions and emotions. Members in support pointed out that policing on campus has increased in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19, which disproportionately affects Black, Latinx, and other minority students. Those against did not disagree with the desire to make campuses more anti-racist but argued that strategically, policing demands need to be backed by more organizational and community support and transparent data.

Going into the union meeting to vote on the first offer we received from the university, I had been planning on voting to accept. Tensions across campus were high. I knew how stressful it was for graduate students being asked to strike, for faculty being asked simultaneously to take on graduate instructor responsibilities and to cancel class in solidarity, and for undergraduate students whose tuition, grades, and futures depend on attendance to be asked to skip class. My sentiment was shared: a straw poll after hearing the offer indicated that around 65% of members intended to accept. It seemed like we could not expect any movement on the policing demands. The threat of legal actions by the university and the spectre of the recent UC Santa Cruz wildcat strike, in which 54 graduate students were terminated, loomed large. Having seen the passion and dedication of some of the union's members and leadership, I worried that even if we accepted the offer, some would continue striking. I knew we would be accepting incremental change, largely unsatisfying, but we would be moving our game piece up a few spaces. Incremental change is not flashy, but it is often how progress is made. When a union’s power and reputation seem to be at risk, incremental change feels safe.

When the results were announced nearly three hours later, after emotional appeals were made to not abandon the policing demands and to stand up for the labor movement, 59% of members voted to reject the offer.

For me, and for some of my peers, the result felt frustrating; pathos, not logos, won the night, and ethos was weaponized to an extent. But as I stared at my screen in surprise, the president who had recommended we accept, without missing a beat, calmly moved forward with plans for a continuation of the strike. It was an explicit and demonstrated message of unity, much like how after a party nominee is chosen, members are encouraged to come together in support of the greater goal. Indeed, the next day on campus, there was an uptick in picketers, louder chanting, more donations from the community. Even those who had voted to accept the offer and may have been disappointed by the vote volunteered to deliver coffee or join the picket lines. The union stuck together and stayed loud; whether individuals felt differently was largely left to private discussions, and a strong public front was presented.

In the sense that the university felt pressured to respond, it worked; what was less ideal was the issuance of an injunction to cease striking and return to work. That move from the university forced the union’s hand to an extent, with a majority voting to accept the second offer one week after the first was rejected, but the fact remains that some progress was made, progress that other members - including Black union leadership with regards to the campus policing demands - were satisfied with. Again, incremental: we were not able to gain weekly testing for everyone, to guarantee the right to remote work for graduate students, or to secure massive and sudden changes to campus policing, but the groundwork has been laid for longer, continued work that’s necessary for substantial changes to the baseline functioning of a corporate entity like a university.

Was everyone happy? No, not at any point of this strike. Most everyone was divided on some issue, at some point, over the past few weeks, on whether the policing demands could be met on a strike timeline, whether those demands were progressive enough, or even whether we should have been striking at all. Despite those personal and internal divisions, the union kept us strong.

That is the strength of a union. Graduate student unions remain relatively rare on campuses in the U.S., with an estimated 35 formal unions as of 2014. Their formation still faces hurdles; in 2017, graduate students at Yale resorted to a hunger strike for their union to be formally recognized. The contentious relationship between universities, whose primary goal should be education and the support and well-being of their students, and graduate student unions is shaped by the fact that universities are corporations first and educational institutions second. These unions fight for graduate student workers, who often provide the majority of face-to-face time with undergraduates, to be valued at a fundamental level. They're interesting, too, in that graduate students - as teachers or researchers - are not an easily or readily-replaced workforce. Our skills are specialized and take months to years to learn, which I feel gives graduate student unions extra power. Part of the reason I chose Michigan for my graduate work was for the high pay and good health benefits, which would not exist without the union. And they fight for what is just, as evidenced by the inclusion of anti-racist policing demands in this strike.

These demands may have been imperfect, and the strike may have been messy, but that’s the shape of change.

We never could have expected to win all of our demands; no strike can. In the end, graduate student unions have the unique power to give voice to a student body that is relatively powerless, to fight for progress, and ultimately to make academic institutions more diverse, equable, and inclusive. Putting aside our individual feelings over specific demands and maintaining the union’s strength increased its ability to fight for future graduate students and progressive ideals. The fight is only just beginning.

Feel free to contact me!