It wasn’t until March 15 that the news of the then-impending strike truly hit me — just five days before the successful vote to start the strike authorization process. My favorite Graduate Student Instructor suspiciously ended our discussion 10 minutes early to make an “announcement.” As I recall, the first thing she did in her spiel was apologize. Now, this is dawning on me — people don’t usually feel the need to apologize for defending their beliefs. She knew, much better than I, that this was going to be a rocky road.
The Graduate Employees’ Organization officially launched their strike with a rally on March 30, 2023 at 10:24 a.m. — giving me a little more than two weeks to find my footing and brace for a GSI-less college experience. Thankfully I was prepared, because Ann Arbor quickly became cold, and my GSI-dependent classes, to my dismay, fell apart.
The University of Michigan made its first post-authorization official comment on Friday, March 24, by mass emailing students and faculty — causing my phone to buzz itself off the desk in my French class. Straight from the corporate America playbook, the tone of the email isn’t even noticeable until you’ve read it as a composition. The University thus was able to strike an uneasy balance: They were informative, with only the slightest hint of discontent. Which could all be seen as an attempt to remain neutral, but it could also be interpreted as a lack of empathy or concern for the striking graduate student. And when someone is in tune with their emotions like I am, it feels like the latter.
On the other hand, GEO didn’t toe the line like the University. They were, and still are, unequivocal: Their demands must be met, seemingly regardless of the collateral. Which meant that since March 30 at 10:25 a.m., my fellow undergraduates and I have been showered with assertive chants, accosted with flyers, told our grades are “bullshit” and more. I know, firsthand, that there is anger and displeasure from GEO, as well.
This was all frustrating and a little overwhelming. The University, who possesses the ability to reach me at any time through my school email, was whispering one thing in my ear, while GEO was shouting the opposite in my face. I was hurting. Our campus was hurting. I felt lost without my GSIs. I missed being able to walk into my classes without feeling like I was personally hurting a GEO member. But, mostly, I was confused about what to think. Who is right? Who is wrong? And maybe I’m still confused — after all, the world has never yielded to black and white arguments.
But I set out to understand the anger, the pain, the loss experienced by GEO members — the humanity bursting at the seams of the issue. Not to figure out who is right or who is wrong.
I talked to six GEO members in search of this understanding, because there is a clear disconnect between undergraduate and graduate students — their wants and needs are different from ours and not always easy to be compassionate toward. I wanted to understand GEO as a group of human beings. So, I listened and laughed and sympathized. No, this didn’t magically heal my GEO-inflicted wounds. Nor did I expect it to. But I think it kick-started the mending process. Or, at least, the issues finally felt real to me — because shouting and whispering doesn’t work, but talking does. So now, I present to the world some real-life humans of GEO. I hope, maybe, this might bring you some peace, or at least, some understanding.
Anna S., she/they, M.A. candidate in the School of Public Health:
Anna is a member of GEO’s bargaining team. She had just finished up the morning session of bargaining with the University’s Human Resource representatives when she walked out of Pierpont Commons, straight past the pizza sent by Bernie Sanders, to sit in the grass. They wore red socks that were speckled with moose silhouettes, and anytime I got to nervously rambling they would say “yeah, yeah, yeah,” which made me feel not only safe, but like I had known Anna for a long time.
“Like many of us (entering college),” Anna intended to go to medical school. But she discovered she wanted to make a “bigger and broader” impact than she could in individual medical situations. Now, they’re working towards a Master’s degree in social and occupational epidemiology. At the same time, they work as a birth doula.
Prior to the beginning of the strike, Anna was a GSI for the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies. As part of the bargaining team, Anna has spent months and months shaping some of GEO’s demands, specifically the abolition and the transgender healthcare demands. Being constantly in the bargaining room is dehumanizing for them, kind of like talking to a brick wall for hours and days and weeks on end would be. Anna is a tried-and-true Michigander with familial roots in the automotive industry. One of the best parts about organizing for GEO, they said, is feeling a connection to past labor movements, while also advancing this current one.
In addition to aiding the GEO strike, Anna collects records and cassettes. With their roommate, going to the record store in Kerrytown is a ritual. She accidentally picked up and subsequently bought the Fleetwood Mac live album The Dance, which is now her most-played record. They use cassettes in their car, absolutely refusing to buy a bluetooth adapter because it might mess up the cassette player.
That morning, she sang “Linger” by The Cranberries to her girlfriend over breakfast.
Kelsie E., they/them or she/her, doctoral candidate in the Department of Middle East Studies:
Kelsie’s eyes lit up when I explained why I wanted to talk with her. Not only were they easy to talk to, but they didn’t bat an eye when I asked if they would sit on the bare sidewalk with me. She wore a Kate Bush shirt — an airhorn indicating she has taste.
They study ancient history, but want to avoid getting stuck in the past because we live in a changing world that “needs help.” One theme Kelsie and I touched on was changing the world: “We need as many people trying to make the world a better place as possible.” This is why they are in GEO. “In an organization like GEO, we have a lot of really cool people trying in different ways … to make the world a better place.”
Kelsie has been a student since kindergarten. They’re very close with their cohort in Middle East Studies, but appreciated how GEO has helped them branch out to make friends in other departments. Kelsie feels both defeated and angry: Defeated because her needs are being ignored and angry because these same needs are being labeled as ridiculous.
Their arms are sleeved with mesmerizing tattoos, each one with a story. One, she explained, is of a lamassu — an ancient Mesopotamian human-headed winged bull. The reason they got a lamassu tattoo is because it reminded them of an “obscure piece of knowledge” that got them into their field of study.
Another tattoo was inked into her skin courtesy of the oldest continuously-operating tattoo parlors in the world — Razzouk Tattoo in the Old City of Jerusalem.
That week, Kelsie hit 5,000 followers on her TikTok page where she teaches cuneiform in her free time.
Hedieh A., she/they, holds a doctorate in Biomedical Engineering, M.A. candidate in the Department of Philosophy:
Hedieh was watching the treeline to our left while I was talking with her. Their eyes reflected the swaying of the trees in the wind. She spoke diffidently at first, growing into her voice the more we conversed. Hedieh is a lifelong learner: After receiving her doctorate from the University in biomedical engineering, she decided to return to school for a master’s in political philosophy. When I asked them about the seismic shift in academic areas, they described their study of philosophy as a “hobby.”
It’s hard to imagine how Hedieh manages to juggle so many responsibilities. She works full-time as a biomedical engineer, is a dedicated mother and is also a full-time student. On top of all that, she’s an active member of GEO, where she’s known for her talent as a shirt-maker. I was awestruck when I saw her screen-printing a shirt, which looked very much like the one she was wearing. I asked why they started to screen-print and they said, “because they needed someone to do it.” Hedieh stepped up for her union — that’s the kind of person she is. She steps up for the people she loves.
In 2014, the fatal Ann Arbor police shooting of Aura Rosser, a 40-year-old Black woman, really affected her. As an Iranian immigrant, getting into activism was scary — but doing nothing was scarier. Rosser’s murder was Hedieh’s catalyst. This current GEO movement is the “third or fourth” time Hedieh has been around this track with the University. And it never gets easier, she said: “It only gets more important.”
No day is started — or even finished — without a latte in hand for Hedieh. She used to fancy having a latte with her favorite authors or musicians, but now she only dreams of being able to hear stories firsthand from a person living in Rojava (the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria).
That morning, like every morning, Hedieh gently awoke her daughter and helped her get to school, all before she got her latte.
It was April when my roommates and I got into a tiff. I tried, and failed, to defend the GEO movement to them — they were, and are still, angry. But, their anger didn’t stem from apathy. Their anger grew because they forgot these people are people. They’re mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, parents and children. By no means do you have to be pro-labor, but I’d argue that you do have to recognize the humanity of GEO strikers.
It was also April when a state judge ruled that the GEO strike violated their, since expired, contract. But, if a judge could squash a labor movement with a signature, I sincerely doubt any of the rights gained for workers over the past 100 years would’ve happened.
Markus M., he/him, doctoral candidate in the Department of History:
Markus twiddled broken blades of grass in his hands the entire time I was talking to him. If I hadn’t been taking notes, I would’ve joined him. He was wearing a see-through watch, so you could see the gears turning, almost as if the watch itself was moving time forward. It’s important to him that his name is Markus, because when he was younger people decided, against his will, to call him Mark.
He knew for a long time that he wanted to be a historian, but did not accept this desire until he had no choice — his love for the subject eventually outweighed his fears of instability. After finishing his preliminary phase (part of a doctoral degree done before writing a dissertation),Markus hopes he is sent to Italy to do archival research on Italian politics during the Cold War. His favorite historian isn’t his advisor, because that would have been “simply too much brown-nosing.”
Though he loves the class he teaches about World War I (he’s done it twice), he had no reservations about going on strike. That being said, it hasn’t been easy. The day before our interview, his teaching evaluations from his students were returned to him. This caused a lot of anxiety for him. He knew, his voice breaking when he made this admission, that he was “hurting undergrads in some way.” Thankfully, everyone was very kind to Markus. Ultimately, he’s been pleased with how the majority of the undergraduate students have reacted to the strike.
Despite being a “part-time ferret father,” Markus thinks he needs more hobbies. His girlfriend introduced him to three ferrets. To his surprise, despite their smell, Markus loves the silly creatures. The oldest ferret, Aspen, is partially blind and loves to collect stuffed animals.
That next Wednesday, Markus had to take his preliminary oral exam. He had been preparing all year.
Larisa M., she/her/they, M.S.W. candidate in the School of Social Work:
Conversing with Larisa was pleasant and comforting, as though every word she spoke radiated warmth. They were wearing an eye-catching pair of Doc Martens that were peppered with flowers. Her water bottle sported a sticker that read “I love my union. Ask me why.”
As a first-year social work student, Larisa is already halfway through her time at the University. They are also a part of the GEO bargaining team. Specifically, they represent the School of Social Work and the “Payment4Placements” demand. This demand represents the desire to be paid for the more than 900 hours of field work required to graduate. She says that field work is “draining,” and not getting paid is an improvement that needs to be made.
Music is very dear to Larisa’s heart. They have an entire army of instruments they can play, notable among them being the kokle — a Latvian plucked string instrument. In college, her a cappella group gifted her the nickname Lari. They were able to arrange a Bon Iver song, “Heavenly Father,” for their group to perform. When she performs as a solo artist, her stage name is Mother Mushroom.
That day, Larisa performed in the strike band, and she was quite good, I might add.
SN Y., they/them, doctoral candidate in the Department of Classical Studies:
SN has piercing blue eyes, the kind that make you aware of how much they see you. They never looked at me like a student interrupting their plans, only as a peer. They wore a waffle knit sweater underneath their t-shirt.
“Bad religion in the ancient world” is how they describe what they study. Specifically, they’re interested in “bad religion” after the fall of the Roman Empire. They went to a conservative, Christian undergraduate institution and SN has sort of “accidentally” fallen into their life here in Ann Arbor.
In their first year at the University, they were not a part of GEO — but mainly just because they didn’t know how much GEO’s work impacted them. But then, they “fell in love with collective action” after sending an open letter to their undergraduate school calling out racism. Summer 2020 was a “summer of uprising,” marked by Black Lives Matter protests and an uptick in racial violence against Asians in America. This radicalizing summer changed a lot about them.
Every morning before checking Twitter, SN tries to read for fun and then does a sudoku. They do sudoku so much that they can’t bear to do it on paper any longer. They enjoy fries, but not the kind from McDonald’s. Their favorite thing to do to “revive” themselves from a day of collective action is walk to Ravens Club on Main Street and do happy hour while munching on fries.
I hope that on that day, SN went to Ravens Club and had the best fries of their life.
It’s now May, and I spent the last hour and a half reading every hate comment left by scorned undergrads, overprotective mothers and overly-involved internet trolls on The Michigan Daily’s GEO-related Instagram posts. In retrospect, opening Instagram was so obviously a mistake. People are upset with GEO’s decision to strike, and understandably so — hell, I might even be upset. Their decision undoubtedly hurt people, chief of which are undergraduates: my peers, friends, enemies, co-workers, roommates, mentors. And now, after reading the internet’s vitriol, to be quite frank, I don’t want this piece published. I’m scared. I’m scared for myself. I’m scared for the GEO members I talked to. I’m scared for our community. And, mostly, I think I’m scared because sometimes humans get so upset that we forget the humanity in ourselves and, especially in this case, in others.
This extraordinarily human behavior is rather terrifying. The only antidote I can dream of is to listen. That’s what I implore you to do. Listen to the sound of the jet that interrupted commencement. Listen to the union chants. Listen to how much these people care. Listen to the pain, the joy, the school spirit. Really pause to take it all in. Because labor movements are beautiful. Humans are beautiful. Stories are beautiful. Giving a shit is beautiful. And if you stop listening, you stop learning. And if you stop learning, you stop caring about people — and the idea of my community not caring for and about each other is unacceptable.
Statement Correspondent Samuel Fonte can be reached at email@example.com