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Editorial: UM strike is about power, not safety

The Detroit News  |  The Detroit News

The Democratic-controlled Board of Regents at the University of Michigan has gone to great lengths to help strengthen unions’ influence on campus. So the strike by graduate employees — now in its second week — shouldn’t surprise anyone.

It doesn’t make it right, however. The university is trying to go about the work of educating students amidst a pandemic. And these striking union members are serving as a significant hindrance to the students who are there to learn. 

On Monday, UM President Mark Schlissel said he is seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in Washtenaw County Circuit Court to get the Graduate Employees’ Organization members back to their jobs. 

The union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, represents around 2,000 graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants at the university’s three campuses. 

More: UM asks court to halt graduate employees strike

And while the work stoppage is ostensibly about COVID-19 related safety issues, the union is using the opportunity to demand much more than just health precautions. It is also seeking “reforms” related to campus policing that have nothing to do with union working conditions, and don’t seem rooted in any actual problems related to campus safety.  

For instance, its “anti-policing demands” include:

►“Access to a disarmed and demilitarized workplace, where lethal weapons are prohibited, our security services do not receive military funding, there is transparency around the use of surveillance technology, there is a standard of force for campus police, and no one faces retaliation for being unable to work due to police presence.”

►“The defunding of the Division of Public Safety and Security, involving a cut of 50% of their annual budget and a reallocation of the funds to community-based justice initiatives.”

►UM cutting “all ties with police, including the Ann Arbor Police Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

In a statement, the GEO said its policing demands were “not optional.” 

The university says that the graduate employees already have great flexibility when it comes to their teaching, with three out of four graduate student instructors teaching remotely. And university officials offered a proposal related to additional COVID-19 protections that was rejected by union membership on Sept. 9.

Schlissel in a video addressing the campus community called the strike a “profound disruption to the education we promised our undergraduate students.”  

Strikes by public employees are illegal under state law, but the mandate doesn’t carry much force and it’s cumbersome for administrators to penalize rogue employees. 

This is what happens when university leadership willingly emboldens unions. Earlier this summer Democratic regent Mark Bernstein led a successful effort to ease union organization drives on campus, such as allowing for card-check organizing.

And in 2011, the regents supported the GEO as it sought to expand its membership by including graduate student research assistants as public employees rather than students. The union ultimately lost that fight in 2014. 

The regents should prioritize students and the taxpayers who help fund the university over campus unions that seek to advance a self-serving agenda.