Editor’s Note (4/3/23): In the first half of the episode, Alvarez mistakenly refers to the previous GEO strike as having occurred in the fall of 2022, but it took place in fall of 2020. Stark and Alvarez make the correction in the second half of the conversation.

Graduate student-workers at the University of Michigan are on strike for the second time in three years, officially hitting the picket line this week. Speaking to The Michigan Daily, Amir Fleischmann, chair of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) Contracts Committee, said, “Grad workers are very frustrated. They’re struggling to pay rent. They’re struggling to afford childcare. They lack access to gender-affirming care. And I think we’re saying enough is enough. The University needs to give us a fair contract now.” On top of that, the University of Michigan administration is once again seeking to weaponize the courts to end the strike, filing an Unfair Labor Practice Charge against the union, claiming that the strike violates the university’s existing contract with the union. In this urgent mini-cast, we talk with Alejo Stark, a grad worker and rank-and-file member of GEO, to get an update on the strike, the response from the administration, and what listeners can do to show support for GEO and its members.

Disclaimer: Max is a former GEO member and earned his PhDs from the University of Michigan.

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Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive at freemusicarchive.org): Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song”


Alejo Stark:  Hello, my name is Alejo Stark. I am a graduate worker at the University of Michigan, and also a rank and file member of GEO, the Graduate Employees’ Organization, which is currently on strike.

Maximillian Alvarez:  All right. Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you.

So we have an urgent, unscheduled mini cast for y’all today. I hope that y’all have been enjoying and taking in the recent episodes that we’ve been putting out, sort of an extended series on crucial labor struggles happening in the realm of education, not just K through 12, but also higher education. In fact, as we talked about in our recent episode with members of the Duke University graduate student union, as well as faculty, tenure track and adjunct faculty at Rutgers, higher ed is really one of the hottest and most crucial sites of labor struggle right now anywhere. And I think there are really important reasons for that that we dug into in that recent episode with the Duke Grad Union and the folks from Rutgers. If you haven’t listened to that, I would highly recommend that you do.

And I hope that you also check out the full length episode that we just published this week where I spoke with two high school teachers about what it’s like teaching under the increasingly dark and fascistic policy regime of Republican governor Ron DeSantis. So we’re trying to do our best here to give you guys as much rank and file grassroots coverage of what educators around the country are going through, how they’re banding together and fighting back, and what they’re fighting against.

And I could not in good conscience stop myself from racing to put together another education related mini cast for you guys because, as you heard from Alejo’s introduction, graduate student workers at the University of Michigan are on strike as of yesterday. We are recording this on Thursday, March 30, grad workers with GEO, the grad union at Michigan, hit the picket line yesterday morning.

And full disclosure, this is my old union. I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan for many years. I was also a rank and file member of GEO. I’m not going to pretend like I have any sort of objectivity here, so you guys can take this for what it’s worth. But as we always do with this show, it’s not really about me, it’s about the worker voices that we lift up, and Alejo’s going to take a couple minutes stepping away from the picket line to give us a quick and dirty rundown of what’s going on right now in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan, how we got to this point, where things currently stand with the strike, and as always, what folks listening to this can do to show support.

So before I kick it over to Alejo to break that down for us, I wanted to center everyone. I’m going to read a passage from a piece that was published today by The Michigan Daily, the University of Michigan’s daily newspaper. This is a piece that was written by Miles Anderson and Matthew Shanbom, titled “GEO Commences Strike Against UMich at 10:24 AM”.

So the authors write – And we’ll link to this in the show notes – They write, “A few thousand graduate students, undergraduates, lecturers, and Ann Arbor community members rallied on the Diag at the University of Michigan Wednesday in support of the Graduate Employees’ Organization’s decision to strike following months of unsuccessful contract negotiations with the university’s Academic Human Resources department. The walkout started at 10:24 AM to call attention to the fact that GEO is ‘walking away’ from their current salary, which is just over $24,000 a year. It was intended to mark the official start of GEO’s strike, which will continue until further notice.

“The strike comes after months of activism by GEO, including filing an unfair labor practice charge, rallying at the February and March Board of Regents meetings, protesting university president Santa Ono’s inaugural procession, and holding a work-in at Haven Hall.

“In an interview with The Michigan Daily before the strike rally began, Rackham student Amir Fleischmann, chair of the GEO Contracts Committee, said graduate students want the university to bargain in good faith with GEO to address the issues graduate students are facing. ‘I think we’re at a point in negotiations where things really aren’t moving quickly enough,’ Fleischmann said, ‘Grad workers are very frustrated. They’re struggling to pay rent. They’re struggling to afford childcare. They lack access to gender affirming care. And I think we’re saying enough is enough. The university needs to give us a fair contract now.'”

So that is just the basic table setting that I wanted to give y’all before I toss things over to Alejo. The other bit of news that we got this morning, this was reported in a local publication, Click On Detroit, we will link to this article as well, that says, “University of Michigan files unfair labor practice charge against striking student workers”. So the University of Michigan, Michigan administration is back on their bullshit. This is not a new tactic. In fact, if you’ve been following along, you know that this is not even the first strike by GEO this year. Grad workers were on strike at the beginning of the academic year and, true to form, the University of Michigan administration, instead of addressing seriously the issues that grad workers need to be addressed at the bargaining table, the university administration ran to the courts, filed for an injunction to force grad workers back to work, declaring that their strike was illegal and breaking the collective bargaining agreement.

And it looks like that’s what the university administration is currently doing now. U of M has filed an unfair labor practice charge against GEO, and it looks like they’re going to try to once again weaponize the courts to force grad workers back to work. So that is still a developing part of this story. We will link to this article in the show notes. We will be posting updates on our social media accounts.

But for right now, while we’ve got Alejo on the line, I wanted to toss things over to you and ask if you could just give listeners a rundown of how we got to this point, what it looks like over there on the ground, what the real concerns are that have pushed grad workers once again to hit the picket line, and then we’ll round out by talking about where things currently stand and what folks can do to show solidarity with y’all.

Alejo Stark:  Yeah. Yeah. Thanks so much, Max, for having me on. I really appreciate the podcast and all the stuff you have been doing for so many years now and for continuing to support working people everywhere.

So the injunction was just filed and, clearly, the university really would rather have its workers be taken to court and be punished by the injustice system than pay them a living wage. And so, that’s what we’ve been asking for. We want grad workers to be paid the cost that it takes to live in a city like Ann Arbor. We’re well, well, well below other peer institutions on this, including Duke, which you mentioned also just recently. We’re well below, in the lower 20%, we rank in the lower 20% of peer institutions for graduate pay. And that’s absurd. So we want a living wage for everybody and to be able to pay the cost of living here, which we estimate is about 38K. Since our last strike in 2020, the gap between the cost of living in Ann Arbor and our own salaries tripled, just to give you a sense of that. So it is impossible to live and work in Ann Arbor with the kinds of wages that workers are currently getting. So we also would like additional support for everybody else that needs it, not just a living wage for all, but additional support for parents, for international grad workers, for the civil grad workers.

We’re also fighting, also in continuation with our 2020 strike, for an unarmed, non-police crisis response. I really wanted to emphasize that because that has not been as featured in other media interviews we’ve done by media, and we’re continuing to fight for the safety of all of our workers at GEO and the broader community, and I’d be happy to talk more about that. The university does not like that, and that’s well within the mandatory subject to bargaining, because we can bargain over our safety conditions and working conditions. And for us, that means having an alternative to calling the cops. We’re also fighting for transitional funding for survivors of harassment and also for accessible and affordable gender affirming care.

That’s just a quick rundown of what we’re fighting for. We have over 50 demands that folks can check out on our website. But the university has basically said, you know what? Strike out all these things. We’ve made very little progress, if at all, as you mentioned Amir said yesterday. We’ve gotten a whopping access to bulletins. That’s what we won at the bargaining table. We now have access to bulletins and departments, and they’re giving us a pay raise of 5%, which is well below even inflation. And let alone, it will not allow a lot of grad workers to pay their rent. So that’s what we’re asking for, that’s what we’ve been fighting for all these months at the bargaining table.

And so, like you said, yesterday, we went on strike, we walked out on 24K with a massive, massive mobilization that took the streets. We took the streets of Ann Arbor and marched to the administration building, the Ruthven building, where the university actually got scared and locked down ahead of us coming, just to give you a sense [Max laughs]. And so, it makes sense. They’re filing an injunction. They’re scared, and clearly they’d rather take grad workers to court than pay us a living wage.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Yeah, man. And again, I really want to stress, as someone who is deeply familiar with how the University of Michigan’s administration works, this is very much par for the course. Whether we’re organizing against, I don’t know, Richard Spencer coming to speak on our campus or just trying to get a living fucking wage for graduate workers upon whom the university depends for a huge chunk of its teaching and research and administrative labor, or if we’re talking about the lecturers – Shout out to the lecturers union, who have also had to fight with the administration over and over again to get what they deserve – This is just constant with this goddamn administration, and they seem just dead set on weaponizing the courts, on refusing to bargain in good faith. And there seems to be, as we discussed in that recent full-length episode with folks from the Duke Grad Union and the faculty unions at Rutgers, we talked about how there’s a very clear disdain from the administrative class at even the thought of having to sit at the bargaining table with the workers who make the university run.

Alejo Stark:  Yes. Yes.

Maximillian Alvarez:  I think that we’re seeing that here. And I wanted to ask you, Alejo, as someone who… I mean, we were grad students together in Ann Arbor, so we’ve seen this shit for years. I wanted to ask if you could say a little more about that longer context. Because we’ve had multiple strikes, and in the beginning of this school year, when GEO was on strike again and the university filed an injunction, workers were asking for really basic shit like degree timeline extensions during COVID, rent freezes and flexible leases for on-campus housing, stuff like that. Better transparency for COVID testing, or remote options for work or childcare subsidies. And once again, rather than bargain, the university ran to the courts.

So I was wondering if you could, for folks who, maybe, have been seeing over the years these different strikes and labor actions, how is this all connected?

Alejo Stark:  Yeah, yeah. So this is our second strike in three years. So we went on strike in the fall of 2020, which has also been termed an abolitionist strike because we were also asking to defund campus police in the wake of the fiery summer of 2020. Now we’re asking for the university instead to fund an unarmed, non-police emergency response for workers and staff, and really to pay their fair share because this is something that the community members have already been developing this in the past year, and even Ann Arbor City Council supports this, which is a far cry from what’s happened before. Clearly a lot of organizing has been done around this. So that’s one of the differences between our demands in 2020 and today. And obviously COVID. So we went on strike for a safe and just response, and we’re still fighting for many of those things today, including the safety of workers inside campus today, who have differential health exposures to COVID. The university is still fighting us on that basic demand.

Since then, I would say that the university… And we’ve been doing a lot of research on our demands since the 2020 strike, and I think I want to emphasize a little bit one of the differences between that strike, which was in reaction to the very dire conditions of workers then, which, as I said, got worse in the past three years, the gap between the cost of living and our salaries tripled in those three years. This time around, what we’re doing is we have open bargaining sessions. And the university fought us tooth and nail to prevent workers from being in the bargaining room. As you said, there’s just a disdain of the management class for grad workers, which, as you mentioned, make up almost 30% of the work that we do here in the university, we’re only second to tenure track faculty. And you can imagine the pay gap between tenure track faculty and ourselves.

Even though we do most of that work, the university did not want to have workers show up at the bargaining table. So they’ve been fighting us on that since November of last year when we kicked off the campaign in the fall. And they’ve really prevented us, for three months, from having members in the bargaining room. We eventually won that. We eventually won the ability to have even folks on Zoom, and only really recently started bargaining in good faith with them in February. But even before that, they sent us a mediator. So from the very beginning they knew that we were organized, they knew that we were powerful, and they wanted to stop even having members in the room. But we beat them at that, and I think we’re going to beat them with the strike if they don’t give us what we demand.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Oh, man. I’m trying to restrain myself here, because I hope it’s obvious that I’m speaking more as an alum of the University of Michigan, a fellow GEO member, but also someone who, I think, has a very vested interest, as all of us do, in higher education, in these institutions actually living up to the missions that they are ostensibly here to serve. A lot of us who work at these institutions still believe in that mission. We, in fact, are the ones who make that mission happen. It’s the workers every day who are teaching the classes, grading the papers, keeping the facilities running, staffing the offices. These are the people through whom the mission lives. And I think it makes perfect fucking sense for universities to actually do right by the workers who carry out that mission instead of constantly squeezing them for more, neglecting their demands for being able to live in the towns and cities and areas where they work, to have a modicum of work life balance, so on and so forth.

I could go on for days, but I don’t want to say anything that’s going to jeopardize the union or Alejo, so I want to make it very clear that I’m speaking for myself here as a U of M alum and a former GEO member. And I also wanted to thank Alejo for correcting my timing fuck up earlier. I meant to say that the last strike that I was referring to was in the beginning of 2020, academic year [crosstalk] of 2020.

Alejo Stark:  Yeah. Fall 2020. Yep.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Yeah. So from then to now, it seems like the university administration just keeps doubling down on the same mistakes. And I really, really implore the university administration to listen to the graduate worker union, to listen to the community that is rallying behind them and actually get serious at the bargaining table, address these issues instead of weaponizing the courts, taking these underhanded roots to avoid good faith bargaining, yada, yada, yada.

So, I know I got to let you go, Alejo, but I really, really appreciate you taking time out of the strike to chat with us about this. And with the remaining couple minutes that I’ve got you, I just wanted to ask, like I said, we’ll keep folks posted on what happens with this unfair labor practice charge that the university administration has filed against the union to try to halt the strike, so we’ll try to keep folks posted about that on social media. But I wanted to ask if you could round out by giving us a sense of how it feels over there on the ground, where things are right now as we’re talking on Thursday, March 30, and most importantly, what folks listening to this can do to show solidarity with you and your fellow grad workers over there at the University of Michigan.

Alejo Stark:  Yeah, for sure. I just want to mention real quick, that I forgot to mention before, this is a supermajority strike, which is different from 2020. This is 95% of grad workers who are to go on strike. And we saw this yesterday with the massive march, well over 1,000 people taking the streets of Ann Arbor and marching to the administration’s office and then continuing on the picket lines, shutting down campus in the snow and in the rain of this really strange spring we’re having here. I think, as of right now, the university has filed an injunction, pickets are ongoing, and we’ve prepared for this. We knew this was going to come, we knew that the university was going to weaponize the courts against us once again and force us back to work rather than give us a living wage.

But we really need folks’ support. At this point, we’re looking at potentially the university docking pay on striking grad workers, they are clamping down with attestation forms, so they’re going to start sending out attestation forms to grad workers to basically self-report to the bosses. And we’ve talked a lot about this in our general membership meetings and have thought about this in advance, but that means that some grad workers may be penalized in the short or medium term. And so we really want folks who contribute to the strike fund that we have. I can give you the link for that later. If you are yourself an alum, like you, Max, tell the university that you’re not going to be giving them any money. If you are the parent of a UM undergrad, they’re fighting for the heart and soul of the undergrad population, and tell them that this is also for their benefit as well, as I think a lot of undergrads understand.

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Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
Email: max@therealnews.com
Follow: @maximillian_alv