On Sunday night, the day before Labor Day, workers of the Graduate Employees Organization (AFT-3550) at the University of Michigan voted to strike. This strike is graduate student-workers’ attempt to pull the emergency brake on the administration’s stubborn plans to reopen the campus. As witnessed in universities across the country, these plans are intended to respond to the fiscal crisis sparked by the pandemic by capturing as much revenue from student tuition and rent as possible, without tapping into the university’s multi-billion dollar endowment — plans that also mean exposing students and workers to the deadly and still unknown effects of COVID-19.
But what’s also notable about the strike is its abolitionist demands. A safe and just campus for all cannot be achieved without disarming and defunding the campus police. Therefore, GEO’s proposal of a “safe and just” campus articulates two sets of demands: COVID-19 demands, which include robust testing, a universal option for remote teaching, extension of graduation timelines, childcare subsidies for parents and caregivers, and the repeal of international student fees. And anti-policing demands which include disarming, demilitarizing, and defunding campus police (GEO is demanding a 50 percent cut in the campus police budget, which should in turn be redirected to community-based initiatives), as well as severing ties from both Ann Arbor police and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
This an abolitionist strike, building off of and inspired by the energy of this summer’s protests against the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others by the police. The University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus cannot be “safe and just” with policing in all its forms.
At 5 AM on Tuesday morning, the first day of the strike, we were met with a cold Michigan rain that anticipates the coming of the fall. Despite our clothes being drenched and our paper picket signs disintegrating, hundreds of strikers and allies were on the picket lines. The pickets effectively shut down numerous construction sites across campus, halting work on capital projects into which the administration continually pours its resources.
While most unionized construction workers respected our picket line, the word of our abolitionist demands spread among some of the trades workers. These demands quickly became a source of tension. Still, trade union workers from local plumber/pipefitter, electrical, bricklayer, and steelworker unions walked off their construction sites on U-M’s campus.
On Wednesday, the strike continued to spread. A small but loud march organized by faculty took the streets, circling across campus to visit the picket lines. Graffiti reading “Strike – No cuts – No Cops – No COVID” popped up on the Alexander G. Ruthven Museum building; a black and pink banner reading “FUND SAFETY NOT POLICE” was hung off a pedestrian bridge, cheered by picketers passing underneath.. That same day, undergraduates working as resident advisors (RAs) went on strike, outlining a series of COVID-related demands and picketing with us.
The same afternoon, an emergency meeting was called for GEO membership to vote on an offer the administration had made regarding our demands. During the four-hour-long online meeting, with 1,250 members present, we learned that their offer refused to extend our time to graduate, give us emergency funding, lift restrictions on childcare subsidies, or offer us a universal remote work option. They also refused to heed any of our anti-policing demands. They then proceeded to threaten us with docking our pay, filing an injunction against the union, and filing a lawsuit against striking GSIs — classic union-busting techniques.
The membership voted to reject this offer, insisting that both COVID and police are different vectors of premature death.
The strike is still spreading. On Thursday, university dining hall workers announced a work slowdown of their own in solidarity with GEO and the striking residential advisors.
A great deal of organizing led up to this sequence of events, but it would be misleading to say that anyone had anticipated it. On the one hand, while the anger and discontent with the administration’s plans to reopen in the middle of the pandemic cuts across various sectors of the university — in late August, for example, faculty staged a series of protests against reopening, while next week the faculty senate will hold a vote of no confidence in the administration over its response to the pandemic — the union was not considering the strike as the main tactic to push its COVID-related demands.
On the other hand, although none of us expected that membership would press so hard on the abolitionist demands, GEO was one of only a handful of unions to support the national prisoner strike in 2018. It also included a series of anti-policing demands in its 2020 bargaining cycle negotiations. GEO also provided vital resources to sustain the Black Lives Matter movement in Ann Arbor, which emerged in the wake of the murder of Aura Rosser in 2014.
As such, the articulation of COVID and policing demands are an expression of GEO’s permeability to the current correlation of forces. What sustains and drives this strike is both contained in and exceeds the contract.
GEO’s demands are abolitionist not only in that they explicitly call for defunding campus police. But also, by articulating two seemingly different set of demands, GEO is insisting that “safety” and “security” aren’t two separate subjects. Take, for example, the university’s police force’s name: the Division of Public Safety and Security. GEO is insisting that such security forces do not make us safe. And the COVID demands speak to a different vision of safety, where the health of the community is not subordinated to the university’s bottom line.
This is a strike with an abolitionist strategy. Its demands are squarely contractual, inseparable from our working conditions, while also beyond a single contract. Such demands are exactly the kind the labor movement needs to make to address the wide range of miseries all of us, union and non-union workers, face.