As the dust settles after the end of the University of Michigan’s (UM) historic eight-day strike, autopsies investigating the labor action are already being churned out. Why the strike ended, who is responsible for breaking the strike, and what future labor action at UM will look like are now questions that will doubtlessly rise to the forefront of debates among laborers at the university for many months—if not years—to come.
But we cannot allow those truly responsible for curtailing labor action to sink into the background: the university administration. Now is the time we should turn our focus to its functions, given it is an oblique and imposing assemblage that has been and will be difficult to reckon with. We know that it has already systematically worked to obstruct meaningful labor action across university campuses in the US. As we are made increasingly precarious as laborers and graduate student workers in the academy, what will our relationship be with university administration?
The presence of the university administration is clearly changing. In the past, the administration has only been exceedingly present and visible to those of us imbricated in its labor structure—faculty, staff, and graduate student workers. To us, it has historically and methodically directed its punitive dimensions, projecting its power and control over our employment and the budget to keep us in line. As laborers, we understand that its power to police is the core function of the university administration.
This also explains why, in the past, the administration has been less visible to undergraduate students. As customers paying a fee for subscribing to the academy, undergraduate students were meant to be strategically courted by the university. The administration’s core policing function is not attractive to consumers, and it has strenuously sought to keep itself less visible. Of course this, like in all circumstances of American life, was a raced and gendered experience. Some people are less likely to be courted than others.
Yet, under the conditions of COVID-19, the punitive appendage of the university administration is becoming perhaps its only one—it is making itself omnipresently visible both to consumers and to its laborers. The activity of customers (undergraduate students), after all, has taken on new threatening dimensions to administrations. What used to be part of the commodified university package—the “campus experience”—that the university once worked to sell is now a threat because of COVID-19.
Here, it is important to realize that the university’s apparatus to police is multifold. On one hand, universities across the US maintain an extensive and expensive campus-dedicated police force while also collaborating with municipal police. On the other, the actual university administration itself is a policing entity. It works to circumscribe students, workers, and faculty alike by holding finances, grades, and choices in its iron fist; to monitor, surveil, and record its student bodies; and ultimately to punish all people studying and working at the university when the occasion rises. We see these two phenomena—campus police and the policing function of the university administration—as inexorably imbricated. They work together to keep graduate students, staff, campus workers, faculty, and even students, from being able to effectively protest reckless university decisions altogether.
To understand the role of university administrations—disciplinary, punitive, and policing—one should turn to the various cases of labor actions that have dominated university laboring scenes in 2020. Students, workers, and student workers at the University of Michigan may have been the only ones to strike against a public university in the US during the Fall 2020 semester (so far), but they were not the only ones who agitated against university plans to reopen this fall. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) was one of the first public universities to open—and it was also one of the first that had to go online because of the alarming spike in COVID-19 cases among students, as predicted by graduate students, workers, and everyone who agitated to keep the universities remote. Formal labor action in the form of a strike may not have happened at UNC, but campus workers, graduate student workers, and staff were far from silent in the face of the looming campus reopening. In both these universities, campus police and municipal police presence on campus has been an issue of contention between those performing labor actions and the university administration.
Comparing the labor actions of these two different university worker groups—given that they followed different labor actions, had different organizing capabilities, and were operating in different labor environments—merely demonstrates the continuous logic that undergirds university administrations across the nation. Both administrations refused to credibly negotiate with workers or listen to their concerns. Both fabricated evidence that showed that their plans to open would be “safe.” Both lied when it suited them to do so. And both ultimately threatened workers, especially graduate student workers, when push came to shove. The reasons why these administrations’ reactions were so similar and so punitive toward university laborers were, as we will evidence here, because of the neoliberal impulses of the corporate university.
Labor Actions and Their Contexts
The Graduate Employee Organization’s (GEO) strike demands did not appear out of nowhere. These demands have a lineage that can be traced to GEO’s engagements with the University of Michigan administration earlier in the year. Throughout the winter semester, GEO was bargaining for its 2020-2023 contract. Considering that COVID-19 became more of a concern in the later stages of bargaining, demands for randomized testing and transparent public health models were not included as part of contract negotiations. However, our demands around racial justice were part of those negotiations, and as is expected from the university administration, discussions of disarming and demilitarizing were promptly dismissed and “off the table.” As contract negotiations concluded and fears over the university’s plans for the fall semester began to rise, GEO attempted to engage the university specifically over COVID-19, and it is in this stage of negotiations where a majority of the strike’s direct COVID-19 demands were first made known, such as emergency stipends, flexible childcare subsidies, and increased assistance for international graduate students navigating uncertain terrain around visas, work requirements, remote courses, etc.
Dismissing GEO’s COVID demands as financially infeasible, the university reminded graduate students that they received a pay raise while others across the university saw pay freezes. All the meanwhile, the administration continued business as usual, boasting about multimillion dollar gifts to the university, and approving credit lines to continue its capital projects. This tactic is, of course, nothing unusual. Similarly, graduate student workers have agitated at UNC for years to raise the base stipends, and during COVID-19, they have worked to secure a universal one-year funding extension and emergency funds across all departments—both of which have been dismissed by the university bureaucracy and individual departments as being similarly financially unfeasible. Even in the case of the history department, which has suspended graduate student admission next year, it is not clear that any of the funds saved by not paying salaries of new graduate student workers are going to tangibly increase the salaries of current graduate students (although the history department has granted funding prior to suspending student admissions next year). In fact, it’s not clear where the “savings” are going to go. Financial insecurity and the infeasibility and further financing precarious workers are oft-weaponized tactics by university administrations across the US.
The UM’s financial inconsistencies, claiming both impending financial doom for the university and a very strong financial position with a $12 billion endowment and a diverse revenue stream, coincided with the mass protests against police brutality in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, as well the Washtenaw County Police’s assault of Sha’Teina Grady El in Ypsilanti, MI, a neighboring town to Ann Arbor. Alongside several other graduate student organizations at UM, GEO called upon the administration to take tangible steps in living up to anti-racism, with a specific demand of beginning disengagement from police forces with known discriminatory practices and disarming campus police, picking up the demand UM refused to engage on during contract bargaining. During its early negotiations with GEO during the strike, the administration refused to engage in discussion around the graduate student workers’ policing demands, claiming campus policing falls outside of the union’s bargaining sphere and as separate from the COVID demands. However, GEO sees the two as inextricably linked, and when looking at the university’s opening plan, so does it. To enforce social distancing, and specifically to prevent large-scale parties off campus, UM created its “Michigan Ambassador’s” program, an initiative created in collaboration with the Ann Arbor Police Department. With the backdrop of months of protests against police brutality, the university of Michigan saw a new policing body made up of students, AAPD officers, and DPSS officers as the solution to create a COVID-safe campus. Deliberately ignored by the administration is how this initiative immediately puts Black and brown students in a double bind of danger. Not only are they brought back onto campus with limited testing and no contact tracing, but on top of that, police are the mechanism used to ensure so-called safe behaviors.
It is against the background of being dismissed by the University as GEO advocated for a safe and just campus throughout the end of the winter term and through the summer that GEO’s strike emerged. Starting at 5am on Tuesday, September 8, and in the pouring rain, GEO members began the first shift of a twelve hour long picket. The trade union members who arrived at their construction sites respected our picket lines, and they continued to do so throughout the strike whenever GEO picket lines were at their job sites. The university administration’s approach of simply dismissing GEO and its demands became immediately more punitive, filing an unfair labor practice on the first day of the strike. On Wednesday, things began to snowball. That morning, undergraduate residential advisors went on strike without the protection of a union, citing the lack of protections and no hazard pay. Late that evening, the University administration came to GEO with its first offer.
While filled with many threats of retaliation, including a possible injunction should the strike continue, the offer did not include sufficient responses to GEO’s demands for greater testing, flexible childcare subsidies, and a universal remote teaching option. Additionally, the administration stood firm in its refusal to entertain the thought of engaging around our anti-policing demands. Throughout the four-hour long meeting, strikers weighed these fears of retaliation against the fact that the deal contained few wins. Furthermore, GEO members had to grapple with the question of what GEO would be signaling to the non-unionized RAs who just began their strike if the union accepted a deal that did nothing to keep them safe. Ultimately, the membership overwhelmingly voted to reject the deal, and picketing continued through Friday when another group of non-unionized undergraduate workers, the student dining staff, began a work slowdown, an amended strategy due to threats of retaliation had they started a full strike.
GEO’s initial strike authorization only lasted until Friday, 11 September, and with no offer on the table, which meant no non-retaliation clause, GEO membership authorized a strike extension. Throughout the weekend, the provost and president sent out a flurry of emails noting their willingness to come to the table and engage in good faith discussions with GEO. However, to the contrary and to reiterate the emails’ rhetoric, President Schlissel simultaneously sued UM’s graduate students, filing a court injunction that would force GEO members back into the classroom and underscoring the administration’s “good faith” negotiations. On Monday, and with a looming injunction over our heads, GEO returned to the picket lines, continuing the strike through Wednesday.
On Wednesday evening, GEO members reconvened for another general membership meeting to discuss and vote on UM’s second offer. Between the first and second offer, GEO made most of its tangible gains around childcare. Regarding the anti-policing demands, the second offer included the creation of a task force and a reevaluating the Michigan Ambassador’s program. Taken comprehensively, the second offer was just as insulting as the first. And while the university’s proposal had not changed significantly, the context in which strikers were agitating had. After the injunction hearing, those on the picket line would not have the protection of the union. To continue agitating with the injunction in place would shift punishment from the academic and university realm and into the legal sphere, placing our Black, brown, and Indigenous peers at greater risk. Furthermore, the irrevocable damage of a court filing abstractly mentioned in the 9 September meeting was now very real. GEO could not survive a court battle with UM lawyers. As graduate student workers, we have few protections, and the university administration made the conscious and intentional decision to attack the strongest protection graduate student workers have at our back: GEO. UM quickly engaged the courts, signaling loud and clear how it is unafraid to invoke hard punitive measures. GEO did not accept this second offer because of its content. GEO membership accepted the deal because to reject it would pave the way for the University to destroy our union.
Well before the strike, UM saw GEO’s demands that advocated for protecting the campus community and greater Ann Arbor community from seeing the town turn into a COVID-19 hotspot. Against the advice of its own ethics committee, the University of Michigan brought back a significant majority of its students to campus without honestly engaging with faculty, students, and staff about the risks. Now, both the campus and Ann Arbor community are left at risk. With inaccurate updating, it is unclear exactly how many cases of COVID-19 there are on campus. President Schlissel’s “public-health informed” semester was said to be based in science. Yet, as was found out through GEO’s strike, the models used to justify reopening campus had too wide of confidence margins and now the dashboard houses inaccurate and unhelpful data, leaving us wondering how the administration is using science to protect its community. When science didn’t work, the administration turned to policing. At both ends of the process of monitoring COVID-19, the administration enlists police forces to deal with students and workers. Roaming the streets on weekends, the police punish students hosting large gatherings and then later when someone tests positive for COVID-19 in the dorms, often campus security is called to escort them to quarantine housing.
The case of UM clearly demonstrates how the two veins of policing in the corporate university—campus police and the university administration’s policing capacities—are deeply intertwined. To further evidence the pervasiveness of this relationship across all US universities, we now turn briefly to UNC.
Labor Actions, Workers, and Allies
UNC has a history of graduate student worker strikes. After a semester of agitation which tore down the silent sam confederate memorial, in Fall 2018, TAs refused to submit final grades for students until the Board of Trustees rescinded their promise to erect a space that would continue to enshrine the toppled racist edifice.
This was not the end of graduate student worker action in the last few years. At UNC, labor action has often been channeled between the Anti-Racist Graduate Worker Collective and the local UE150 union. When UNC’s university administration announced its plans to reopen over the summer, the administration anticipated student backlash, and therefore formulated a plan to misdirect workers’ ability to agitate effectively: endless meetings that yielded no tangible results. For instance, early on in the agitation, activists were told by the university administration that they would only communicate via the Graduate and Professional Student Federation (GPSF), which they considered to be the only legitimate elected and representative body and therefore the mouthpiece of graduate students. When graduate students managed to get GPSF to pass a resolution that campus should remain remote (among other demands), UNC administration promptly ignored that resolution. In another instance, UNC students were told repeatedly that, if the Orange County Health Department (OCHD) mandated that the university close, UNC would adhere to that mandate. UNC students and workers were urged to email the OCHD at volume to beg them to issue this mandate. What UNC administration didn’t admit at the time was that the OCHD has no ability to issue mandates, only recommendations. When the OCHD did issue a recommendation not to open on campus, the administration then, predictably, ignored it.
There are countless examples of this sort of misdirection that occurred throughout the summer—and by the time August came around, the writing was on the wall. The university administration never intended to listen to workers, regardless of what happened, in order to meet that sacred bottom line. They were willing to sacrifice students and vulnerable staff no matter the cost, and had already proven it by sickening 37 student athletes and staff by July 2020. As in the case of the UM, at UNC similarly linked demands for pandemic relief to the ending of police presence on campus, understanding, like the UM workers, that the deteriorative impact COVID-19 among the communities of Black, Indigenous, and people of color has been exacerbated by racist policing across the US. UNC responded by posting police at dorms to “welcome” students back to campus—and more importantly, to ensure that students adhered to the frankly impossible distancing guidelines. Police were frequently employed to issue citations to students allegedly not correctly distancing—a move that, predictably given the racist core of police, most frequently targeted Black students most.
The lack of strong organizing and direct labor action over the summer cost the UNC and wider Chapel Hill community dearly. Hundreds of known COVID-19 cases spread in the first two weeks of students living on campus, and likely thousands of unknown ones since UNC sent students home without exit tests. At the same time, we had no clear allies: faculty were signaling obliquely they were unwilling to strike or support a strike, graduate student workers were divided, campus staff were similarly without a consensus. Yet, it is unclear whether direct labor action would have yielded a different outcome, given what we now see from the UM.
The Neoliberal Afterlives of Corporate University Action
In the wake of two modes of labor organizing—one with the support of a sanctioned union (UM), and one occurring in a hybrid form where students were divided between working within a union and outside of one (UNC)—we can now begin to draw conclusions about the kind of university system we now inhabit. After all, in neither case did the university administration attempt to engage in compromise. It seems that to universities now, any amount of labor organizing among graduate student workers on campus is too much labor organizing—on both campuses, the university moved to quash it without engaging in true-heartened negotiation. Furthermore, this is not the only circumstance in which university administrators have attempted to aggressively curtail labor action, as in the University of California-Santa Cruz’s infamous firing of 54 graduate student workers for engaging in a grade strike in Spring 2020 (41 who were eventually rehired due to continued graduate student worker agitation). Given this, what conclusions can we draw about the role of the university administration?
It’s obvious now: the core function—perhaps its only function—of the university administration is to police students and laborers alike. Its multidirectional ability to police, both through dedicated campus police that police our bodies and the university administration’s policing logic that circumscribe our range of choices, have been detrimental.
For generations, our collective ability to engage in labor actions has been deliberately undercut, both at the state level and at the level of our universities. From state legal impediments like right-to-work laws, to deliberate university decisions to keep workers weak, like the fact that graduate student worker stipends at UNC do not even come close to the minimum livable wage in Orange County, it is clear that the state and the university work hand-in-hand across the country in attempting to destroy our possibilities for labor action. Dragging its heels on providing conditions to benefit us, it is quick to lash out when its commodities (classes and grades) are threatened, levying injunctions and the omnipresent threat of firings and wage withholdings when it sees fit. The neoliberal corporate university seeks to individuate us as political-economic actors, to depoliticize us as laborers, and, failing that, to punish us aggressively for daring to envision a better future.
What does this mean for the future of university solidarity organizing?
At first glance, conditions appear bleak. But the university administrations are in a crisis mode. Reckless reopening plans across the country have sickened mass populations of students, staff, and workers across the US. Campuses have become the new national hotspots, contributing about 40,000 new cases since campuses began reopening in August (as of 11 September 2020). Class action lawsuits are pouring in. Some estimates show that college enrollment in the coming years could fall as much as 20%. All of these facts line up very dangerously against the business-as-usual model that corporatized universities have attempted to employ in the Fall 2020 semester.
Yet, UNC has now all-but-officially announced that it plans to once again attempt to open for Spring 2020, and UM continues to go about its business without the faith and support of many faculty and graduate students. What will the university administration do to protect this decision—and other dangerous, reckless, and selfish decisions like it—going forward now?
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