On September 7, as the University of Michigan rushed to reopen campus, the graduate workers authorized a strike — the first time in nearly fifty years that the union, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO, AFT-3550), had done so. Michigan is a right-to-work state, and public workers are prohibited from striking. But, as the university invited students back to campus and endangered the lives of thousands of campus workers, the graduate employees took unprecedented action. Their demands were straightforward: transparency in communication, remote teaching options, testing, and safety guarantees. However, what began as a “COVID strike” for health and safety quickly developed into an abolitionist strike, as student workers used the strike not only to demand a say over the university’s reopening plans but also to call on the university to defund the campus police. As several leaders of the effort explained in Jacobin, the demands were linked: “A safe and just campus for all cannot be achieved without disarming and defunding the campus police.”  

A little over a week after the conclusion of the strike, I spoke with Erin Markiewitz, the Vice President of GEO. I had been deeply involved in organizing the first-ever strike of graduate employees at Harvard last winter, so I was eager to learn everything I could about GEO’s remarkable strike — especially how rank-and-file workers decided not to return to work until the university actually negotiated with the union over its policing demands. One of the major questions facing the academic labor movement is how to build coalitions with anti-racist and social movement struggles in the communities our universities exploit and plunder. After GEO, organizers now have a concrete example to learn from — the first abolitionist strike in the history of student-worker unions. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

 

 

Brandon Mancilla: Tell us about your organizing background and how you got involved in your campaign.

Erin Markiewitz: I was pretty new to organizing when I joined GEO. I got involved during the trans health campaign in 2018. And that campaign was pretty big for this university because the University of Michigan has a history of conversion treatment, of really bad healthcare practices around trans folk. It was a pretty huge push, and we have one of the more trans-inclusive healthcare packages across grad students now. And it was really exciting being part of that work and it sort of pushed me into doing other labor organizing in GEO.

 

BM: Great. Let's talk about this strike that was just historic and monumental in scale. How did strike organizing get started?

EM: Strike organizing really began in the spring following the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. There was limited impact bargaining at the beginning that led to extended leave policies but little more than that. The formation of the COVID caucus — a rank-and-file caucus — really started this escalation because the COVID caucus put together this open letter with early versions of the demands we struck over, and we had around 2,000 signatures. That marks the beginning of us escalating towards a strike.

Now, we didn't necessarily agree that we had the mobilization for a strike back in April due to limitations I think a lot of grad student organizers recognize with just organizing over the summer. People are checked out. People are not on campus. People are engaged in research elsewhere. It's very hard to build up the mobilization you need over the summer. The mobilization continued through the summer, and we started meeting with deans. And the problem with meeting with deans is they'll say one thing, and then you ask them to follow up and turns out they're really not interested in following through with the action items they discussed at the meeting. Those frustrations along with an impact bargaining process that was far too slow and didn't yield anything significant further helped us mobilize towards a strike.

 

BM: It seems like it was a rank-and-file development in a way.

EM: I think it comes down to the fact that unions can't push for things without membership buy-in. GEO strives to be a membership-driven organization. And leadership can't do anything without members backing. So it was a really strong movement that required a lot of rank-and-file support.

 

BM: You already talked a little bit about impact bargaining. What were some of the issues that workers knew, or expected, that they were going to face if the university pushed ahead without any resistance to their reopening plans?

EM: The first issue that came up pretty immediately was transparency. It now has come to light that they didn't have a model. They didn't have sufficient testing, and they knew it. They went against their ethics board. But, in the beginning of this escalation, we had no idea. Workers were really concerned about transparency and having a seat at the table. So that's one. Transparency and a seat at the table was a major issue which all workers were concerned about.

We were concerned about a universal remote option, the universal right to opt out of in-person teaching, which the university continues to say is unnecessary but also refuses to give to us even though conditions on campus continue to depreciate. We also wanted more financial support for graduate students in the form of a rent freeze on campus, in the form of extended timelines, and a one year extension of funding. We also wanted support for caregivers and parents because the university is not willing to expand their childcare subsidy to include alternative caregivers. And even though they did make an expansion, it's still not complete. They're still not providing them the support we would if we were not in COVID and that's just out of line.

We also wanted support for international students. The International Center at Michigan did not have a phone line. You could not call them and ask questions. So, when ICE and DHS handed down these new guidelines, there was not a phone number you could call. And emails were sometimes contradictory. It's pretty atrocious that it took this long for them to get a phone line, and to hire at least one additional staff to help with this.

Those were the COVID-related demands. Over the course of the summer, we added policing demands, and we had a pretty ambitious but very much intentionally abolitionist set of policing demands, such as defunding campus security, which is DPSS here, as well as ending the university's relationship with ICE and Ann Arbor Police.

 

BM: What exactly did organizers and strikers mean by an abolitionist strike? 

EM: The push for the policing demands came from the rank and file. Something we're still working on [is] how to support and center rank-and-file organizers and make the decision-making of this union extremely democratic. Especially since traditional union structures may not necessarily be the most democratic. So, it really came from rank-and-file organizers. 

A problem that came up is that, due to Michigan being a very white university, we did not have that many BIPOC folks working on the policing demands at the beginning, and we didn't have a sense of what would be steps towards abolition we could take in the likely event that the university didn't give us exactly what we wanted. There was a lot of work at the back end done by the emergency anti-policing caucus and the Black coalition. They shouldered a lot of work at the very end. We wouldn't have gotten a sense of what was important to get without their work. There's a huge debt to them with bringing these demands across the finish line.

The moment it became abolitionist was when we were offered a package at the end of the first week that included marginal movement on all of these COVID demands, or some of them, and no movement on policing. And the question was, do we let the policing demands fall by the wayside or do we put our money where our mouth is? And we showed up and we turned down a deal that some people have described as holding parents and international students hostage to get the union to turn it's back against BIPOC workers on this campus. So, I think the rejection of that initial offer was really important for us to making sure that our strategy and our focus was trying to move forward the work of Black organizers and Black academics, and in service of their research and work in trying to push for abolition. 

 

BM: What kinds of discussions were going on as the strike developed that made it clear that the majority of the striking workers were going to say, "No, we’re in this until we have some movement on these demands"?

EM: It's interesting because I think most of those conversations happened around one general membership meeting. GEO has a history of two-day work stoppages, so it's unsurprising that the university would give us an offer after two days. I remember we got the call about the offer, and I remember telling the president [of the union], "I'm not sure what the best move is because we're not sure if we turn down this offer if we'll get another one." We had no idea what moving forward would look like. I think a lot of people had similar feelings.

Then, going into that general membership meeting, there was a large discussion of risks. We were all very well informed about the risks moving forward. And it was interesting because at the beginning of that meeting when we did a straw poll, the majority of the people who responded to that straw poll said that they would be willing to accept that offer. And it was interesting watching over the course of speeches, [members] slowly coming around to rejecting the offer.

Part of a grad student union is recognizing that there are radicals, and there are extremely moderate moderates, and the struggle is getting them to work together and getting them to fight for a shared goal. People recognized that this was a moment, and that we wouldn't be able to get policing demands outside of a strike, so why are we not pushing for them now? For me personally, and I think for a lot of people I talk to, it felt like accepting that offer would be very racist, and I couldn't live with myself if we got marginal progress on anything, nothing on policing, and our decision yet again was to drop policing. It was really this recognition of what that decision would mean for us organizationally and personally moving forward. I don't think you could narrate that decision any other way.

 

BM: You did mention that Michigan is an overwhelmingly white institution. But, was there something else about either history, or political, economic, or social context of Michigan that elevated policing and anti-racist politics to the center [of the strike]? Beyond obviously the Black organizers who were voicing these things.

EM: There's a lot of abolitionist organizing going on in Washtenaw County where U of M is located and I don't want to speak for those organizers. I think those organizers are brilliant, and it was a really huge development in the strike when we started working with them and building a coalition with them. There is local history that informs this. One, the University of Michigan is white for a number of institutional and legal practices. IUnions in the state of Michigan are white, or tend to be whiter, because of right-to-work. It creates this economic pressure that leads to more affluent students who feel like they're more capable of giving time and giving funds to a union.

In response to the pandemic, instead of actually improving testing, the University of Michigan increased policing. They set out this Michigan Ambassadors program which, thankfully, is over. I'm sure they'll figure out a way to expand policing on campus in light of the end of that program. What the Michigan Ambassadors program did is it paid students to police other students with (at first) an armed, and then unarmed, security person patrolling behind them. And it's really unnerving when one of the regents is going from picket line to picket line trying to do a PR tour with these Michigan Ambassadors and you just see this DPSS officer behind them. So, there was that sort of initial history, very recent.

There's also the murder of Aura Rosser in 2014. And I think that memory really hangs over policing in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County because the police chief at the time is now in charge of COVID enforcement policies at the university. So, I think those two pieces really were major stories that we told during the strike to show the interconnectedness of our policing demands and our COVID demands.

 

BM: You mentioned that you began to prioritize coalition building with community groups. What kind of work went into building trust, collaboration, and coalition. And how do you plan to sustain that going forward now that the strike has concluded?

EM: It comes back to the rank and file. I'm reticent to call it a coalition because we're still not sure whether or not the coalition exists, or if they'll have us. But bringing abolitionist groups into the strike, and trying to center and highlight their work came out of rank-and-file organizers already having built those relationships. So we really benefited from having rank-and-file [organizers] who were already involved in abolitionist organizing, and we're still trying to figure out how to support the community moving forward. 

 

BM: I want to talk a little bit about the dynamics of the strike, and organizing it, and its organic development. You mentioned that Michigan has a history of two-day work stoppages. When was the last time that there was a mobilization for a strike beyond that? 

EM: 1975.

 

BM: Wow. What were some of the challenges convincing workers, or leadership, that the strike was possible at this time? And necessary? Because you mentioned how this was a rank-and-file development, but I don't know if that means all the rank and file were ready to strike. How did these conversations develop over time?

EM: We started collecting work stoppage pledges about seven weeks before the strike. We should've started these pledges two to three months in advance because it takes a while. Some people were not interested, and some people we didn't know the level of interest because we didn't actually have numbers on our bargaining unit. Going into the week before the strike, there was a lot of uncertainty about whether or not we would hit our mobilization numbers. But there were certain events on campus that made it seem like a strike in the second week would be effective. The faculty announced a vote of no confidence in administration. We started hearing rumors about issues with housing on campus and general treatment of undergraduates that we found to be extremely unnerving and also indicated that we should show leadership as an organization and take the first step towards fighting against these reopening policies. So even though we didn't have the mobilization we were targeting, it really came down to seeing other organizations, and just the general atmosphere on campus, being strike-ready.

The other thing to mention is, going into the strike, we did not know we would have enough picketers. Typically, when you set up a strike, you start calling people for picket shifts a week or two in advance. You schedule that. We, thankfully, figured out a way to use Google Forms to auto-schedule people. We got 700 picket shift sign-ups scheduled in one day. Planning and processing for the strike was very rushed because it became clear it would be viable a week out. While we had done a lot of the pre-work, the actual strategy was very last minute. I think the organizers of this union would be very open about how last minute these conversations were.

 

BM: I'm sure there were a lot of concerns for people in terms of their security and the risks that they were going to have to take if they went on strike. What kinds of challenging conversations were you having with workers? What were some of their hesitancy or concerns about what kind of risk they would take to make this a successful strike? And were you able to change the minds [of those] who initially might have been resistant to the idea of going on strike?

EM: I had some conversations with people who were unsure. And before the strike it was difficult to get people on board because they felt like there would be significant pushback. They were afraid they would lose their jobs. They were nervous that we wouldn't win what we wanted to. They didn't think we would make progress on their demands. And, they didn't think we were mobilized enough. And all of those were concerns going into this. Those were all reasonable concerns.

The conversations and concerns of workers changed over the course of the strike. I think it became — I don't want to say easier — but [it] changed after we rejected the offer. Because then the conversation became, "Look, if we don't continue the strike, they're just going to retaliate, and we'll lose jobs.” Really, what I found helped the most was explaining various cases where we heard of people being pressured to work in-person. The university would say, "Oh, no one's being pressured," but then you'd hear this case of two instructors. They're told one position is in-person, the other's online. And the person chose to work in-person because the other individual in that class was pregnant at the time. They didn't really have that much of a choice because it was either them or their colleague who is high-risk for a serious reaction to COVID-19. But the university says, "everyone's being accommodated." Those stories and really saying, "Look, you're fighting for your colleagues here," moved the needle.

The conversations we had around the Wednesday general membership meeting when we rejected the initial offer — at least, the argument I made was that we knew what was going to happen if we accepted the offer. Michigan has a long history of two-day work stoppages. We know if we took that offer it would just be a continuation of that. And I think, at that point, the people I had conversations with were willing to see what happened if we rejected it.

 

BM: I was impressed at how large your general membership meetings were at the end of each day. You said Wednesday was peak participation because of the relevance of discussing the deal that was ultimately rejected. How did you keep that energy going? How did you get thousands of people, or hundreds of people, at a time to come to these meetings? Was it just happening and you had to deal with it? Or was there some kind of coordination in having to keep up membership democracy in that way?

EM: It's a hard question because it was extremely surprising at the time, so I'm not going to pretend we had a sense of, "Oh yeah, this is going to be 1,200 people. No questions asked.” I think a lot of it came down to the amount of work our communications team did, and the work of our organizers, and our department stewards. And I think a lot of that work is less visible than in-person picketing. But, when the stakes were high, people showed up. I think nearly all of our members showing up, in part because they were energized around these demands, but also because someone told me, "Look, some of these people aren't here because they agree with what they're doing. They're here because they're worried about whether or not they're going to be teaching tomorrow morning." So, I think that's an interesting element. We also had close to 1,400 at the second general membership meeting. There was a lot of energy. It came down to having a great communications committee and also having a good virtual picket line and having really good organizers on the ground.

 

BM: Another thing I noticed about your strike was how it had this domino effect. Resident advisors ended up going on strike. Dining hall workers slowed down. Construction workers stepped off one of these days if I'm remembering correctly. How did these conversations happen? Did the action happen first and then discussions afterwards, or was there any sense of one strike, or one action, building off of one another?

EM: I think it's the latter. It came through personal connections through the rank and file. I remember having conversations at base camp where all the information about these different strikes was coming together and you could see bits and pieces. And, the resident advisors, M dining, undergraduate workers, going on strike or doing a work slowdown was extremely brave. I don't think as an undergrad I would've been able to pull off what they did. And, the university really failed the Res Life. They were putting these kids in rooms with positive COVID-19 patients and telling them to do the work healthcare providers should be providing with no oversight. And putting them in dorms without sheets or food.

On one hand, I want to say perhaps GEO's leadership affected that, but there's a lot of student leadership involved here, and I really don't want to minimize that. The push to end the Michigan Ambassadors program started with the Students of Color Liberation Front, which is a group of multicultural organizations who got sick of their role and their tokenist inclusion in these campus groups and started fighting about the Michigan Ambassadors program and really led the way with that. As much as the GEO strike created an organizing space that was really useful, I don't want to minimize the undergraduate leadership that led to significant progress on some of these demands.

 

BM: What were some of the strategies [you used] in countering explicit attempts to break your strike? Intimidation, faculty resistance, claims of this being an illegal strike, the injunction hearing. It was just on and on. Every day, there seemed to be some new form of strike breaking involved here.

EM: Absolutely. At the same time, our comms team is better than Michigan's comms team. So, it was one of those things where we would be hit with threats and these PR narratives that were easy to poke holes through. And they're narratives we've seen before: We're a community. We need to stick together. Your strike is letting undergraduates down. So, I think there was a public response that was important. We also were mindful of how those threats impacted our members. And, part of our way of responding to that was through standard labor organizing inoculation. Reaching out to department stewards, having them contact their members. Making sure that anyone who had questions about retaliation could talk with our grievance team who could help them out or make sure that their questions were answered.

Another strategy that we employed was through symbolic pickets. When the School of Social Work threatened retaliation against their students, we picketed in front of their building for a couple of days. And then, by the end of it, they sent out a letter of support. That shows that, in response to threats, there's external work that needs to be done, internal work that helps support it, and on-the-ground action is also an important part of that strategy.

 

BM: Ultimately, you agreed to a deal. Now that there's been a few days of distance between that, those events, what do you think you achieved with that deal and what is still lacking? What needs to be addressed with future organizing?

EM: I think it's important that we talk about the injunction. We had a hearing the next day, which would have led to our strike being declared illegal, and we would have lost all of our bargaining power. And that would've led to us being retaliated against. Because we had no other options, we would have continued to go on strike, and we would have been hit with contempt of court, which would have not only come with its own fines, but the university was also suing us for damages, and we were fairly certain that we caused enough obstruction that they could feasibly sue us out of existence. The main win there is that we have a union. We still have the union. We can support our students. We can still file grievances. We can support workers.

Having the Michigan Ambassadors program ended was huge. Again, I don't want to claim that victory. I think the Students of Color Liberation Front deserve to claim that victory. Organizationally, it's a victory that we were able to step up and support them. We did win some increase in the childcare subsidy, we did increase support for parents. We did increase support for international students. We have a new member at the International Center, and they're working on the phone line, which isn't much, but it's something. We had this really bureaucratic process of opting out that basically gives someone a 50% chance of being able to work remotely after going through a process, which isn't great, but it's not nothing. Maybe there'll be some timeline extensions, but we're not optimistic about that. Policing, we have a task force. Again, task forces are... they are not known for their effectiveness. But, I think we're optimistic that we can organize around the task force and use that, possibly, to gain some information or further our organizing moving forward. What we're seeing this as is a big lesson in how to run a strike and also at least charting a way forward for the next two years before our next contract campaign. 

 

BM: So, knowing what you know now, what's one thing that you would've done differently during the strike?

EM: There's so many things. So many things. I think for any graduate union, what I would recommend is: figure out the unions that work on campus, and around campus, and support them. Show up to their strikes. Show up to events. Donate. Do what you can so you can build those bonds, so when you need help, they're willing to step up. The problem we face as grad student unions is that teachers unions have a history of not respecting picket lines, at least in Michigan. At least, that's my experience talking in Washtenaw County. It's up to us. If we hope for them to respect our picket lines, we need to show that we're not going to cross theirs. We're actually going to join them. If I were to offer one piece of advice, it would be that.

 

BM: Do you have any other concluding thoughts that you want to share with organizers and workers of other public institutions organizing a strike in a right-to-work state? Or workers at private universities, facing a different set of challenges?

EM: That's a pretty big question. I think the reason why this strike worked — and it's important that we recognized that the strike could've failed and could've failed in a way that left workers at the University of Michigan worse off — I think the reason the strike worked is because participants in this strike stepped up. And we also received support from labor groups in the area. One thing that was important for this strike was emergent systems that built up over the course of the strike. And I'm sure you had this similar experience at Harvard during your strike. Suddenly, the people who were doing one set of tasks figured out a way to organize another group to oversee those tasks, and you have committees forming that wouldn't have formed before the strike because you had no idea what you needed.

The main lesson, or the two lessons: you can't win a strike without support from other workers and you need to make space for the rank and file to respond to the challenges on the ground with new strategies and new systems.  

 

 

 

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