U of Michigan graduate workers end strike, but pressure on university remains

UPDATE: Sept. 17, 2020: The University of Michigan’s graduate student union called off its strike late Wednesday after accepting an agreement from the administration. The deal allows graduate employees to appeal decisions requiring them to work on campus, and it makes “temporary enhancements” to child care subsidies for students, according to a university announcement

However, on Twitter and in public statements, union members suggested the final agreement didn’t satisfy their demands. “The University poured their immense resources into legal fees instead of simply protecting our community by implementing reasonable steps toward a safe and just pandemic response for all,” the union wrote in a statement.

Dive Brief: 

  • The University of Michigan’s regent board is asking a judge to force graduate employees to return to work, a move that could end their strike to improve coronavirus protections and reduce policing on campus. 

  • The strike comes as the university juggles several controversies, including a narrowly missed vote of no confidence over its reopening plans and presidential leadership, a sexual misconduct scandal and student complaints about unsanitary conditions in quarantine facilities. 

  • The court is likely to side with the university because of a state law barring public employees from striking, according to one legal expert, although the union could make a compelling argument that its members’ health and safety are at risk. 

Dive Insight: 

The University of Michigan on Monday asked a local court to require the graduate employees to return to work. If the judge sides with the school, those who continue to strike can be held in contempt of court and the union could incur civil damages, according to a university statement

Other pressures on administrators are mounting. The Faculty Senate on Wednesday afternoon voted to call on the university to withdraw the motion for the preliminary injunction. University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald noted in an email that all Faculty Senate votes “are advisory in nature” when asked if they would have any bearing on the legal action administrators take.  

Meanwhile, a vote of no confidence in U of Michigan President Mark Schlissel’s leadership failed. According to Faculty Senate Chair Colleen Conway, 957 members voted in favor, 953 voted against and 184 indicated they were abstaining  falling short of the 50% of all votes needed in order to pass. 

However, Conway said she will retain legal counsel to look into the issue further. The vote could be overturned if the counsel determines that those who voted specifically to abstain shouldn’t have been counted in the total, she said. 

“Whether you call it a yes or no, it’s really, really close,” Conway added. 

A separate vote of no confidence over the university’s reopening plans also failed to pass. The meeting came a day after Schlissel conceded during a virtual town hall that there has been “an erosion of trust across the campus” in his leadership. 

Its graduate employee union began a strike last week for better pandemic protections and less policing on campus. Union members extended the action this week after they rejected a proposed agreement from the university. 

The school is offering several class formats this fall and planning to end in-person instruction before Thanksgiving break. Over the past two weeks, 62 coronavirus tests have turned up positive out of the 3,300 conducted on campus. About 48,000 students were enrolled at the U of Michigan last fall. 

It’s just one of several universities facing collective action or legal pushback on its reopening plans. 

Strikers at the U of Michigan are demanding several changes to the university’s coronavirus response, including that the administration create “robust plans” for coronavirus testing and contact tracing, allow any graduate employee to work remotely, and give graduate students $2,500 in emergency grants.

The union has received support from construction workers on the campus and some undergraduate students, MLive.com reported

School officials argue that the employees are breaking a state law barring public employees from striking and going against a no-strike clause in their contract, as well as severely disrupting campus operations. 

Mark Moore, a partner at law firm Reavis Page Jump, said the university has a “fairly high” likelihood of success. “Generally, courts are willing to create preliminary injunctions to stop illegal strikes because they are seen as creating irreparable harm,” Moore said. 

About 90% of U of Michigan undergraduates take at least one class taught or co-taught by graduate student instructors, according to the institution’s motion for an injunction. It also says the union has been pressuring undergraduates to forgo attending class. 

“Not only are (the union’s) members interfering in the University’s mission to educate students by unlawfully withholding their labor, they are encouraging impressionable undergraduate students, over whom they exercise significant authority, to forego their education,” the document reads. 

Union leaders, however, view the legal action as a “clear sign” that its strike is working, they said in a statement that chided the university’s actions. 

“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,” it reads.

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