A Strike Against Despair

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, a University of Michigan undergrad reflects on the sense of possibility unleashed by the grad student strike.

Miriam Saperstein
September 18, 2020
Picketing on day four of the University of Michigan GEO strike. Photo: Arighna Gupta

ON WEDNESDAY, just before midnight, I lay in bed watching TV on my phone, feeling too sad and restless and worried to sleep, when I got a text from my brother that made my stomach drop: GEO—the Graduate Employee Organization at the University of Michigan, where I’m an undergraduate—followed by a sad face. The union of graduate students instructors and staff assistants had been on strike for the past week and a half. I texted back immediately, what happened, but I was pretty sure I already knew: The strike had ended. 

I felt crushed. For the past ten days, momentum for the GEO strike had only grown, with residential advisors (RAs) joining the strike, dining hall workers staging a slowdown, and social media buzzing. GEO had been demanding a safer reopening from the university administration, including comprehensive testing, as well as a reimagining of campus safety along abolitionist lines; they also demanded that the university provide childcare subsidies, halve the budget of the Division of Public Safety and Security (the campus police), and sever ties with the Ann Arbor Police Department (AAPD), with whom they’d recently expanded their partnership. But despite the groundswell of support, the union voted late Wednesday night to accept an offer from the university administration—the same offer its membership had strongly rejected last week. The proposal expands childcare coverage and promises non-retaliation against the union, but the university defanged the policing demands, promising more committees and discussion instead. It seemed that many members found the university’s recent threats too dangerous: Earlier in the week, the university president, Mark Schlissel, in a questionably legal move, filed an injunction against striking students, threatening significant fines or even arrest. 

I understood the GEO members’ reasoning, but was deflated nonetheless. The strike had energized me, provided me with a way to channel the frustration and uncertainty I felt as the university plowed ahead with a dangerous reopening. I’d been out of the loop with campus organizing since returning to Ann Arbor midway through the summer, after living with my parents in the Detroit suburbs since the university went online back in March. Reading emails from Schlissel and other administrators as the beginning of the semester approached, it became clearer and clearer that the university was shirking its responsibility, putting the onus for containing the spread of Covid-19 entirely on students, as opposed to requiring universal testing or going remote again. Occasionally, I’d hear about an action in response: an undergrad organizing meeting, a grad student die-in. On late night phone calls and at socially distanced picnics, my friends shared rumors that the faculty might take a symbolic vote of no confidence in the administration, or that the university might close the dorms after cashing student checks. A week before classes started, I moved to South Campus, the heart of Greek Life housing. My mask-less neighbors partied every night; I avoided walking around the neighborhood. I noted a headline announcing that one of the university’s regents, Ron Weiser—who owns much of the off-campus housing in the city—had made a huge donation, seemingly to ensure an in-person reopening. I switched out of my one in-person class, which I thought would eventually shift to online. 

On Labor Day, the week after the disastrous reopening, with Covid cases already popping up across the dorms, my friends’ Instagram stories filled with news of the GEO strike, set to start the next day. Reading the list of demands, I felt excited for the future for the first time in weeks. Surely, the university couldn’t function for long without its grad students, which might just force the administration to respond meaningfully not only to the demand for a more responsible approach to the pandemic, but also to years of abolitionist organizing in the area, much of it rooted in the memory of the 2014 police murder of Aura Rosser. I was skeptical about whether the union would be able to stick to their anti-policing demands if the university made significant changes regarding Covid safety. But I joined the fight determined and hopeful.

I stopped going to class so as not to cross the picket line. I abandoned the schedule I’d carefully crafted the previous week and signed up for a picketing shift  the next morning, and then one later in the week. At 7:55 am, I put on my rain boots and headed through the downpour to Angell Hall—named for a former university president who wrote an influential and xenophobic 1882 law that led to labor discrimination. Arriving a few minutes late, just as I might for class, I joined a group of about 15 students, many of them striking grad students; we all signed in, for the purposes of contact tracing. For three hours, we marched in a wide circle, chanting and dancing and whistling and shouting, each of us at least six feet apart. My glasses foggy, and my wet mask sticking to my face, I held a paper sign that read, “UM Works Because We Do” until it tore beyond recognition in the rain. Halfway through the shift, workers from IBEW Local 252, the electrical union that contracts with the university, came by to voice their support. They expressed their gratitude for GEO members joining them on their own successful picket this past summer, when the university had hired non-union electrical workers. When the electricians told us they wouldn’t cross the picket line, I couldn’t stop smiling. 

As we picketed, I let my mind wander. I pictured giant frat mansions occupied by families formerly displaced by Ann Arbor gentrification. I imagined the Diag, the campus’s central lawn, overgrown with wildflowers, young people and elders learning together as they watched butterflies on the milkweed. I hadn’t daydreamed like this for years. I often write down wishes, but I usually can’t visualize them except in dreams. But something about the strike helped me concretize these images, making them more than dreams or words on a page. Like the rain, the solidarity between workers I’d just witnessed left campus feeling newly bright and fresh, and full of possibility.

Of course, such solidarity, in practice, was not all butterflies and wildflowers. With an hour left to my shift, a new picket captain came by to relieve the person who’d been there since 5 am. The new captain warned us against anti-cop slogans; earlier in the day, construction union workers had taken issue with them. I asked the captain: What about the union’s demand to cut ties with AAPD? What’s the point of including that demand if we hide it from our messaging? They said we needed union support to make the strike work, and that although we support abolition, it wasn’t tactical to shout it. Despite the captain’s warnings, the other picketers continued to joyfully chant “Fuck 12!” 

After my shift ended, I couldn’t focus on anything but news about the strike, checking app after app. Other union workers refused to cross the picket line, halting construction, and some professors canceled classes. I signed up for two more morning picket shifts. Momentum kept building: On Wednesday, the second day of picketing, my picket captain announced that the RAs had joined the strike, with demands such as basic personal protective equipment and a non-retaliation promise if they formed a union. On Thursday, the dining hall workers announced a walkout—which later became a slowdown, due to fears of retaliation—demanding the enforcement of official Covid safety procedures. 

Throughout the week, university administrators sent emails trying to pit the various campus communities against each other. They condescendingly told undergrads that the strike demands were merely labor disagreements, beyond the scope of our concern. They suggested that our grad student instructors, RAs, and dining hall staff were to blame for the conflict. They claimed that striking was not a good way to address concerns, and instead hosted a carefully mediated “open conversation,” derided on the picket line as a transparent PR stunt. If the university wanted to listen, we told one another, they had ample opportunity; we’d been speaking directly to the broader community, from local high school students, to faculty from the School of Public Health.

The more the university seemed scared and desperate, the more hopeful—and anxious—I felt. I checked my phone every few minutes. Without classes to attend, I had no routine to speak of, besides taking my medicine. I fell further and further behind in my statistics class, which I needed to graduate, and began to worry. The professor had canceled the GSI-taught discussion sections, but had later clarified that he expected us to keep up with the homework, saying the class was too important to cancel. I complained to a friend: “Isn’t that the point of strikes? To stop important work from happening so demands are finally heard?” 

Was I overthinking things by refusing to turn in homework? I texted friends, and messaged my stats group chat: “Is turning in homework crossing the picket line?” We discussed, negotiating an on-the-fly striker’s halakha. Some said they would keep up with classes behind the scenes, but not turn anything in, even in classes that didn’t rely on graduate student instructors. Others thought we should turn in homework for classes that relied on grad student instructors, so the professor would get overwhelmed with grading and pressure their department to support the strike. In the chat for undergrads supporting GEO, students encouraged one another to assess their own personal risk level, and make decisions accordingly. I emailed my professors, letting them know I would not be turning in homework during the strike.

The afternoon before the strike ended, I dropped my stats class, knowing I didn’t have time to catch up on two weeks of math, especially during the High Holidays. I hadn’t been on the picket line since the previous week; instead I’d attended teach-ins and sent emails encouraging my professors to cancel classes while catching up on the everyday stuff I’d tossed aside in the urgency of the first week. I felt drained, missing the comradery of the picket line. But because I had no idea how long the strike would last, I knew I needed to prepare for the long haul. Then, before I knew it, I was in bed, the box fan whirring, unable to cry, texting my parents, the geo strike is over. I felt heartbroken, like the university had won and would always win. 

Yesterday, I woke up to Instagram posts from union members promising to keep fighting, words of solidarity with the RAs still on strike (they are more precarious than ever now, since the director of housing threatened to fire them all). These messages reminded me that I needed to draw closer (metaphorically, of course) to the people who’d been showing up for each other all week, rather than pull away in defeat.

Even amid all the disappointment and uncertainty and fear, I’ll remember these past weeks as a time of stubborn joy. I’ll remember a child in a sailor hat and tiny green mask raising their fist as picketers sang “Solidarity Forever.” I’ll remember the stellar reporting from the student paper renewing my faith in campus journalism; my cousin texting my mom—both Michigan alums—expressing their wish for the union’s success. The thrill of being among other strikers eager to learn about the history of Ann Arbor labor organizing, and being filled in on the details by an equally enthusiastic scholar of the subject.

Earlier this week, it seemed the new year would arrive on winds smelling of picket-line coffee. The rainbow chalk proclamations of STRIKE STRIKE STRIKE on campus buildings were Rosh Hashanah blessings; the bus driver’s horn, honking long and loud as they drove past the picketers, a kind of shofar’s call. Now, the new year feels like overcrowded deadlines, a schedule so packed organizing seems almost impossible. I hear about new outbreaks on campus every few days. But all the people who took risks for the greater safety of the community still surround me, a reminder to take care of each other, to make time for possibility.

Miriam Saperstein is a poet, zine-maker, and library science student in Detroit, Michigan. They were a 2020 New Voices/Jewish Currents fellow. Their work has also been featured in the lickety~split, ctrl+v, and Protocols.