Last Tuesday, the Graduate Employees’ Organization, also known as GEO, commenced a strike at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Over three quarters of GEO’s 2,000 graduate student instructors and assistants support the strike, which took place over four days.
Those on the picket lines wore masks and maintained social-distancing guidelines to remain safe while they relayed their message.
GEO’s strike was in response to two major concerns at the U of M campus. The first of their concerns involves the health and safety of students after the university welcomed its 45,000 students back to campus amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Although most classes are offered online, many feel that the close-proximity living quarters on campus facilitate the spread of the virus.
The second of GEO’s concerns involves anti-policing demands after U of M decided to increase on-campus policing as a means of enforcing social distancing and mask-wearing among students. Many feel this increase in policing at U of M could cause a subsequent increase in racist policing activities.
GEO’s decision to strike serves part of a long-running history of workers demanding policy-change by applying pressure to the administrations that oppress them.
“The strike is one of the oldest forms of protests,” said Dr. Ben Peterson, professor of history and political science. “Some point to Secession of the Plebs in ancient Rome as the first example, but I would suspect that strikes have existed in one form or another from the very beginning of the concept of ‘work.’”
With the increase of strikes and protests across the United States throughout 2020, many possess strong opinions about whether they serve as effective, valid forms of creating change.
“Like the power of labor in general, their effectiveness tends to ebb-and-flow across time depending on a variety of legal, social, and economic forces. Despite this they have clearly had a defining impact on the country,” said Peterson.
Many liberties we enjoy today were fought for on picket lines and accomplished through strikes and protests by past generations.
“The strike waves in the 1930s not only improved conditions for striking workers, they established new patterns of wages and labor relations that helped to redistribute wealth throughout the country,” said Peterson. “In Michigan in particular, the UAW strikes in 1936 transformed labor conditions in the automotive industry and helped to build a period of prosperity for the workers of the Midwest.”
Regardless of the spectrum of approval for the rise in strikes and protests across the United States, GEO’s strike at U of M sparks controversy because the state of Michigan prohibits public employees, such as professors at public universities, from striking.
“Public sector employees are regulated under different systems depending on the state,” said Peterson. “Some states treat public workers as regular workers, but others severely restrain what they can, and cannot do.”
In spite of these restrictions imposed by the state, GEO successfully picketed for four days, concluding last Friday. Strikes and pickets such as this may not always conclude in instantaneous policy change, but they open the door to discussing change.