what a strike is for

This is the free, Sunday edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.

When I started my Master’s Program at the University of Oregon, I didn’t know how good I had it. As a “graduate teaching fellow” — known elsewhere as a TA — I was paid a living wage for the place where I lived. I was able to access very good health care, including mental health care. I would’ve been able to add my partner to that healthcare plan, even if we weren’t married. And I was protected from the “fees” that many universities foist on graduate students (technology fee, advising fee, building fee, administrative fee, often totally thousands of dollars for the year).

I didn’t really understand, because I had no real awareness of how other programs worked, that those things weren’t just givens. Our union had fought for them to be that way.

Then I went to University of Texas for my PhD. I looked at my tuition bill that first semester, and saw all the fees accumulating despite my supposed “tuition remission,” and slowly realized just how impossible it was going to be to pay rent in Austin while netting under a thousand dollars a month. I remember asking an older grad student, “But what about the union, have they tried to do anything about this?”

There was no union. There was no recourse. We had no power.

That’s what a union can do: it grants power to those who are otherwise powerless when it comes to their employer. It’s a defense against exploitation. It’s a way of turning a chorus of individual concerns into a shout that can’t be ignored. It’s a means of creating changes that will last long beyond yourself and your tenure. It’s how we collectively assert our humanity as workers — and our refusal to be treated as replaceable robots.

Some of those things are achieved through months’ long negotiations with employers. And when that doesn’t work, they are achieved through a strike. A strike is not a sign of petulance or self-importance or greed, as it is often framed. It is a last resort and an unsubtle reminder: we are essential.

That’s what graduate students and RAs at the University of Michigan are doing right now: reminding the university that it cannot function, at least not for any extended period of time, without them. And they’re doing it because the university has refused to make the university workplace safer and survivable: by ensuring that all instructors can teach remotely if needed, by extending funding for graduate students whose research has been paused by COVID, by expanding childcare assistance to parents, and by dramatically redirecting funding from campus policing efforts to community building, as well as cutting their ties to the Ann Arbor Police Department and ICE.

When I was in grad school, there was a general sense that the University of Michigan grad students had it made. They were paid well; they had good research funding. They were smart and confident and doing really good work. Their union had negotiated for the sort of stability that made that good work possible. And that’s what a strike is for: expanding that stability to account for the vagaries of 2020, but also to address structural instabilities, especially when it comes to safety for students of color, that have long been ignored.

I spoke with members of the University of Michigan community — grad students (part of the GEO), undergrads, professors, RAs, and staff members — about the strike, its importance, and the campus reaction. Responses have been lighted edited and condensed for clarity, and some people have asked for anonymity out of fear of retaliation. You can read a detailed outline of the strike and demands here, and at the Michigan Daily, which has been providing incredible ongoing coverage.

Stephanie Karol, PhD Candidate in Economics and Public Policy

The union was a big selling point for me when I was choosing a grad program. When I visiting, it was the end of the contract cycle [when the union negotiates with the administration], and other students were stressing that hey, we have this union that is getting you really good health care — and it’s not just health care; the union fights for all sorts of things. One of the big things we negotiated for, this last cycle, was a separate co-pay cap for mental health care. Graduate school is a time of strain on mental health for most people, and this is a concrete measure that can help us in so many ways. That’s the sort of thing I preach about. 

We’re on strike because the university administration betrayed our community — not just as graduate students, not just as University of Michigan students, but as people who live in Ann Arbor. Even people who, off the tops of their heads, couldn’t tell you a single demand that we’re asking for in this strike — they would agree with that statement. 

My personal view is that we shouldn’t be having in-person classes at all. The president made his pretty homophobic claims comparing COVID testing to HIV testing. Over the summer, they kept saying that we were going to have a “public health informed reopening.” But what does even mean?  The president later admitted that he made those words up. Words have to mean something! [The president has resisted demands for universal testing] 

Part of our platform of demands involves testing and tracing and coming up with a plan that is actually informed by public health experts. But we’re also advocating for the deadlines for degree milestones to be pushed back for a year, and for funding to be expanded for a year. This is a lost year of work for a lot of people. You would think this would be in the university’s interest as well — if they want us to stay in graduate school, which is the essence of these demands, including the child care subsidy — then help us stay in graduate school! If we’re stressed, we’re not going to do as high quality work. If your work isn’t high quality, your placement isn’t going to be as good — and the prestige of the university will go down. 

The university has said that our strike is illegal. And technically, they’re right — the strike does carry a civil penalty in the state of Michigan, because we’re a Right to Work State and we have a contract in place. But when they say our demands aren’t negotiable, or have nothing to do with the labor contract, I strongly disagree. We are asking for protections that are workplace protections, and benefits that are workplace benefits. Our anti-policing demands, for example, are insuring protections for our colleagues of color. They’re acting like there isn’t precedent, but there’s a very normal precedent: we’re effectively asking for an expansion of our benefits package. 


A, ResLife Staff

ResStaff as a whole had been waffling on striking since we moved in. When we first heard about the GEO strike, it was the impetus we needed to take that plunge ourselves. We share a lot of the concerns GEO have, although our demands aren't the same, and we just realized that the timing was right. 

I also think a lot of people don't realize just how essential ResStaff are for running the dorms. We run the package room, sorting mail, checking it in to the system, and checking it out to residents. We deal with all lockouts between 9am-7am on weekdays and 12pm-7am on weekends, checking out new student IDs, or personally opening doors for students. We are also almost solely responsible for enforcing the rules within residence halls, including the new COVID guidelines. 

You’ve probably seen by now the anecdote @UMResstaff posted about an RA being asked to interact with a COVID-positive resident face to face without warning, and that’s not an outlier. For me personally, I’ve had to enter resident rooms full of unmasked, drunk freshmen, many of whom didn’t live in my building, in order to enforce the COVID guidelines. This puts me at risk every time I go on duty. I’ve walked dozens of students who don’t live in this dorm out of the building, and even had people run away from me back into the building.

Strikes are also scary. We’re really scared of retaliation, even after having received a statement of non-retaliation. It’s actually in our contract that we cannot disagree with housing — some excerpts from that with original emphasis:

If I disagree with a policy or decision, I understand I am encouraged to provide constructive feedback to my supervisor or ask clarifying questions, while continuing to enforce the policy unless directed otherwise.

“I will role model the values that Michigan Housing has in place, and will show public support for all University and Housing decisions and policies.”

We really did try to work with Housing first. We’ve been in communication with them since ResStaff move-in started, including the two town halls (the recording of the first one is here). Striking wasn’t our first choice, and it wasn’t an easy choice. But as communication with Housing slowed to a halt, and it became clear that they were done considering our demands, we had to make a choice to stand up for ourselves and our residents, even if that meant some short-term discomfort or being fired for it. It’s hard and it’s scary, but we’re committed to this strike and to making some real change.


Anonymous, Tenure-Track Faculty

I’m an Assistant Professor in my first year on the tenure-track, but I’ve been at the university for a number of years. My sense is that there’s the usual radical contingent of progressive faculty who support labor — and then there are people who are apathetic or just not following, and the people who are against it. 

Some faculty organized a protest, but the turnout was pretty low. I just think the faculty here is very comfortable. People call Ann Arbor “twenty five square miles surrounded by reality,” and that feels very real. There isn’t a connection to what is happening in the world. I mean, they’ll do a silent bike ride for Black Lives Matter — acceptable things. 

But there’s reason the grad union is leading this. The faculty and staff — they don’t have the organization apparatus to be vocal about this, and the other unionized workers, like the lecturers, are very precarious. Still, there’s this infantilization of the grad students, like do they know this illegal? Yes, they’re over 18, some of them are over 30, they know what they are doing. And I think there’s a deliberate misreading of the policing demands: they’re just trying to fight unsafe working conditions. 

For me, it’s been so disappointing to see these very smart people who can talk on paper about labor and politics, but can’t do this simple act of support. 


Stephanie, Campus Worker

I was a barista in a campus coffee shop, and last week they laid me off, because no one’s going to the library to get coffee. So now I work at a grocery store in one of the dorms. We had little modules that we had to take before we started work, telling us “wear a mask, stand six feet apart!” We’re supposed to be getting our temperatures tested each time we go to a shift. But I think that happened once? I’m on work study. It’s not like I can just quit.

The GEO strike absolutely makes sense. Honestly I was surprised it took a week to get to this point. Last year the GEO worked with the student worker coalition and the coffee shop workers in particular as we petitioned to get more clarify about lunch breaks. We knew that supporting GEO was our way to give back. 

The simple act of going out to the picket line and walking in a circle feels like I’m doing something. You get everyone out there doing it, and it feels so powerful. 

I think that most of the undergrads get it? But I also feel like I’m in an echo chamber, and most of the people I’m friends with are from work, or are RAs, and we’re all for it. Some people think that it’d be easier to swallow the demands if they hadn’t brought up policing and had just focused on COVID, but I don’t think you can have one without the other. I mean, the university has announced that in order to stop COVID, they’re going to increase policing. How do you detangle the two? 

How do I think this is going to end? It feels inevitable that someone is going to die. I have a friend who tested positive and she’s in quarantine right now, and I can’t text her anymore, because she’s having fever dreams. This is someone my age, who’s not immunocompromised. People are starting to get seriously, seriously sick. 


Anonymous, Faculty Member 

We also know why all the universities are reopening: they need money, and they need the students’ rent money. They’re pushing through the reopening. But this is the most angry I’ve ever seen the faculty since I’ve been here. There was a zoom faculty senate meeting a few days before campus reopened, supposedly the biggest in the history of the University. Every person who spoke was angry at the administration. The first person who spoke suggested a Vote of No Confidence, and it just kind of escalated from there. 

But the faculty senate, as an institutional body, doesn’t have any power. Everything is advisory, and limited to a circumscribed area, and it’s governed by Robert’s Rules of Order — systems that neutralize momentum and energy. So there was all this energy around the Vote of No Confidence, and all these people seconded a motion to hold the vote, and then they said: now we can vote on it at our next meeting in three weeks. But the whole point was to protest the reopening! 

The grad student strike seems like a way of pushing these demands forward without having to go through the institutional limits of the faculty senate. And some faculty are trying to support the grad students: we had a march the other day, and there’s a letter [now published here] in support of the strike [with 436 signatures at the time of publication].

But my general feeling is that faculty are demobilized and not plugged into any meaningful political stuff that’s happening. There are a lot of people in Ann Arbor, including faculty, who think that it’s a liberal town, the police are nice, and we don’t have to worry about those problems — or that those are real problems, but they happen elsewhere. 

That’s obviously not true. Students of color regularly report being mistreated or singled out for attention by the police — both the city police and the campus police — and the Ann Arbor police shot and killed a black woman, Aura Rosser, back in 2014. There were protests at the time, but that officer is still on the force, and the person who as the Chief of Police at the time, and who defended that officer, he has since been hired at the university as head of housing security. 

Anecdotally, I’ve heard of faculty who think that policing demands distract from the COVID demands. But people are starting to make those connections. The faculty letter that’s circulating, it refers to the killing of Aura Rosser. Maybe faculty are finally starting to follow the lead of the of the graduate students, instead of thinking that they know better. 


Silvia Lindtner, Associate Professor, School of Information and Associate Director, Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing (ESC)

As a tenured faculty I stand in support with GEO. Their demands are clearly articulated, reasonable and important as they are aimed to address the grave health risks and unsafe work environment on campus due to a lack of adequate covid-19 testing. Their demands, including the proposal to allocate funding for racial justice initiatives in lieu of funds going into an armed police presence on campus, are not only utmost urgent and timely, they also reflect concerns of our university community as a whole. 

I am very concerned about the University’s lack of sincere engagement with its students, faculty, and staff who have in various ways tried to reach university leadership over issues of testing, reopening plans, and police presence for some time now.

But I am also extremely concerned about what appears to be a slow but steady erosion of faculty governance and reliance on top-down decision making, couched most recently in a language of intimidation and paternalistic benevolence. This is accompanied by institutional shifts and a language of intimidation. I have heard from many students and pre-tenure faculty in particular who fear retaliation for their activism – e.g. concern over job loss, denial of tenure, salary cuts, cuts of benefits, etc.

What is most concerning is that recent institutional shifts have made it easier for the university to retaliate against individual faculty. I recently received tenure, which should be a moment of celebration — yet much of my time appears to be consumed with fighting its further erosion. It is disappointing that a university like the University of Michigan has in many ways ceased to operate like a public institution as it caters towards the interests of wealthy donors and investors. I see the current strike and GEO’s hard work as both a symptom of this ongoing transformation of our university and as a very thoughtful attempt to envision and concretely implement an alternative university – a university that lives up to its promises of public education, racial and social justice and equality, and democratic governance.


Dom Bouavichith, PhD Candidate, Linguistics

It’s really easy talking to undergrads about what we’re doing. We get the most contact hours with them. We’re younger and more in touch with what undergrads are thinking and doing. So we try to communicate to our students what’s happening, here’s why we’re doing it, and here’s why a union is important. I was on the picket line yesterday and one of my former students came to the line with coffees — it was so heartwarming to see.

Our demands are workplace safety demands. We’re asking for a written policy that anyone can teach online if they want to. We need it written down. We want funding extensions — which is huge for me personally, because I do behavioral research using eye-tracking, and that can’t be done during COVID because it involves being in small room with another person. We want stipends for childcare. And then there’s policing demands, which are squarely within the realm of workplace safety.

When people say this is an illegal strike? I would say: this is what unions do. The university doesn’t function without us.

Not to be too hokey or feelsy about all of this, but this is a moment of solidarity. Knowing that there are so many other people in your same shitty situation saying no, we deserve better, and we’re going to get better — it’s powerful. We’re all feeling the precarity of academia. There were no jobs before COVID, and there are no jobs during COVID, but people at this institution don’t seem to care about anything other than undergrad tuition. All of the energy that’s gone into the strike has been such a potent antidote to everything. That’s another thing a union does. A union says: it doesn’t have to be like this.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

Piece I Wrote for the NYT this week: I Used to Go Out. Now I Go to Home Depot.

Book I’m Currently Reading: Luster by Raven Leilani

DO YOU WANT TO KICK ONE OF FIVE TRUMP-RELATED BOOKS OFF THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER LIST? HAVE YOU PRE-ORDERED CAN’T EVEN? Those two things can be related. Bookshop / Amazon / Call Your Local Bookstore, they can send it to you!

As always, if you know someone who’d enjoy this sort of mishmash in their inbox, please forward it their way. If you’re able, think about going to the paid version of the newsletter — one of the perks is a weirdly fun/interesting/generative discussion thread, just for subscribers, every week, which is thus far still one of the good places on the internet. If you are a contingent worker or un- or under-employed, just email and I’ll give you a free subscription, no questions asked. If you’d like to underwrite one of those subscriptions, you can donate one here.

You can find a shareable version online here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Feel free to comment below — and you can always reach me at annehelenpetersen@gmail.com.