Grad Workers’ Strike Shows Labor Why It Must Become Abolitionist

To many of its organizers, the recent strike by the University of Michigan’s Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) was a defeat. The strike, which began on September 8, had included demands for more transparent COVID-19 testing protocols, the right to teach remotely, and the disarming and partial defunding of campus police. Yet the university’s decision to seek a court injunction led graduate workers to call it off before these demands had been met. To be sure, GEO had won some gains — increased child care funding, greater COVID testing transparency and a new task force intended to evaluate campus policing. But the threat of legal retaliation against individuals and the union alike was sufficient to conclude the industrial action. By a margin of 1,074 to 239, and with 66 abstentions, GEO voted on September 16 to accept the administration’s rather mild set of concessions.

Yet the defeat contains an element of victory for the broader graduate labor movement. In taking industrial action to demilitarize and defund policing, the GEO strike articulated an abolitionist vision that will inspire and provide the model for countless struggles to come. This “abolitionist strike” tethered the demand for safe working conditions to that of justice and protection for all community members, especially those Black students and workers who are disproportionately made unsafe by policing. In demanding that the university cut ties with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Ann Arbor Police Department, and that campus police be disarmed and defunded, GEO showed how the most effective weapon of the labor movement can be simultaneously applied to the fight for racial justice.

GEO’s abolitionist strike responds to the recent uprising against racist state violence following the police-perpetrated murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and too many others. But it also builds on recent struggles against racist police violence in Ann Arbor, most notably the grassroots campaign for accountability and oversight after the murder of Aura Rosser by Ann Arbor police in 2014. Though the long-term goals of the campaign were not achieved, Austin McCoy has drawn attention to its more immediate goals, such as “perform[ing] the intellectual and political labor of expanding possibilities, or as the late Marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright called [it], envisioning real utopias,’ and communicating to the public that these alternatives were worth fighting for.” Without this earlier intellectual and political labor, led primarily by Black women organizers, it is doubtful that the GEO strike would have found the broad community support that was crucial to its strength. Another precedent was the 2013 Being Black at the University of Michigan (#BBUM) campaign, led by the university’s Black Student Union, which generated greater public awareness of the racism experienced by Black students from campus and local police.

Ann Arbor’s legacy of anti-racist organizing fits into a broader, national history of Black-led neighborhood and campus groups fighting for accountability and, often, to remove police and prisons from their communities entirely. Recently however, graduate worker unions have entered the abolitionist fray, and have contributed to a new movement of anti-racist graduate worker unionism. Workers’ groups at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UC Santa Cruz); University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Northwestern University; University of Chicago; and the City University of New York, among others, have all recently campaigned and even taken industrial action against policing, often in coalition with Black-led undergraduate and/or local community groups. GEO pushed this movement another step forward by launching an indefinite strike and thereby introducing a new level of labor militancy in the abolitionist fight.

More than this, GEO showed how the fight for racial justice is itself a labor fight. Two days into the strike, the university proposed a deal that partially met GEO’s demands for COVID safety. Yet the deal refused to budge on GEO’s policing demands, and the union voted overwhelmingly to reject it. In doing so, they made clear that the call for police abolition was not auxiliary to their demand for workplace safety during the pandemic. Instead, they maintained that the true safety of all graduate workers would only be achieved with the abolition of police on campus.

Indeed, as GEO has shown, abolition is not merely a “solidarity” issue for graduate worker unions. Police abolition is not a program that seeks primarily to benefit individuals or groups outside of a given bargaining unit. Such a framework typically assumes that graduate workers are all white, privileged and unaffected by the problem of policing, and that racial justice is secondary to economic justice. While graduate programs are undoubtedly still too white and elite, the fact remains that Black, Brown and Indigenous workers are routinely subjected to the university’s regular violence and exclusions, so abolition is a necessary step in protecting these workers at their workplaces. As the Black feminist Combahee River Collective has argued, not one of us is free until the most marginalized among us is, for this itself would “necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression” (emphasis added). Failure to fight the threat police pose to racially marginalized workers, then, only reinforces these harmful systems on their own “shop floor.” The minimal support that universities provide for these workers, in combination with their maximal racialized policing, surveillance and intimidation, is thus a workplace issue, and one that graduate worker unions should make central to their organizing efforts.

In addition to inextricably linking abolition to struggles for worker protections, the strike also offered a more expansive vision of what graduate worker organizing can and should fight for. It showed that the future of graduate worker organizing must be abolitionist not only because the protection of Black and historically marginalized workers is central to a union’s task of securing the interests of all its members. It must also be abolitionist because ending police violence serves the union and community members alike. The fight for the union cannot be dissociated from the fight for the safety of the broader community, on campus and in the neighborhoods and cities where universities are located. GEO’s abolitionist strike is historic because it expanded the purview of graduate worker struggles as such and demonstrated that the fight for the safety and economic interests of a bargaining unit can only be pursued through a broader fight against racial capitalism — a capitalism that structurally relies on race and racism to operate. That the University of Michigan went on to hire the former Ann Arbor police chief responsible for defending the officer who murdered Aura Rosser as the head of the university’s housing security director further demonstrates the need for graduate worker movements to operate through a community-based lens, and to stay vigilant in disrupting collaboration between universities and municipalities in criminalizing Black community members broadly.

Along with rooting these shifts in local anti-racist struggles across the nation, the crystallization of an abolitionist direction in graduate worker unions should be contextualized within the broader history of the U.S. labor movement. A solidarity statement from faculty in the University of Michigan’s History Department called attention to the strike’s parallels in this history and to earlier instances in which unions “have dared speak on behalf of a broader public, to claim rightfully that their members’ immediate needs match a public interest in social betterment.” In addition, we might consider the example of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which has fought for anti-racism from its founding in 1937, and which recently organized a port shutdown in solidarity with the summer’s uprising. We might also contextualize GEO’s anti-racist organizing within a long tradition of Black communist and trade union organizing which frequently led mass campaigns against lynching and police brutality in the earlier half of the 20th century.

Yet, on the whole, U.S. labor unions have a much poorer history on race. At best, they have often marginalized or offered only perfunctory support of racial justice; at worst, they have actively fomented white supremacist shops. For example, in the 1940s, despite their union’s nominal support for racial equality, white United Auto Workers (UAW) members frequently went on strike when Black workers won promotions. Because of the increasing number of Black workers in UAW plants and resentment against their families settling in white working-class neighborhoods, white Detroiters violently attacked Black Detroiters during the Detroit race riot of 1943. Making matters worse, as the post-war Cold War consensus hardened, many unions purged their most militant, anti-racist trade union organizers for fear of being branded anti-communist, effectively stunting radical campaigns for racial justice in the workplace. The institutionalization of business unionism in this period further compounded the problem. Even before — but especially after the passage of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act — once radical, rank-and-file-driven unions increasingly began to operate through a professionalized collective bargaining process that yields only incremental benefits for a narrow bargaining unit, suppresses militancy, hinders solidarity and refuses to fight for racial justice.

Abolitionist graduate worker unions like GEO, then, are not only relevant to campus politics. Instead, they help chart a path towards a multiracial, anti-racist labor movement as such. Their agenda evokes — and radicalizes — a “Bargaining for the Common Good” approach in which contract demands are determined in coordination with coalitional groups and seek to “transcend the traditional bargaining frameworks that are written into law.” This strategy engages all community members in fights to improve collective working and living conditions. It’s typically only by securing community support and broad participation across multiple sectors that a fight can win. Such engagement thus proves essential for the achievement of demands. The pioneering success of the 2012 Chicago Teacher Union (CTU) strike demonstrates the potential of this strategy: by coordinating with local groups, such as Stand Up! Chicago, the Grassroots Collaborative, and Parents 4 Teachers, CTU was able to win a major contract fight, bucking the prevailing pattern of concessionary agreements across the country. What GEO’s strike adds is the demand for abolition, and the vision of a unionism responsive to immediate needs of community members, that is able to launch emergency industrial actions untethered from slower contract cycles.

Recent graduate strikes have succeeded in broadening participation and support beyond their bargaining units. GEO’s strike, for example, was joined by resident advisors on campus, and received further momentum from a solidarity slowdown organized by dining workers. One lesson to be drawn from the strike is that making abolition central to an action does not alienate allies in the way detractors often fear. Although the potential for abolitionist demands to sustain coalitions should not be the litmus test for its inclusion in the labor movement, the GEO strike demonstrates that abolition can and must become the norm for worker struggles. Another lesson, however, is that even this wide-ranging support wasn’t sufficient. To maintain an indefinite strike against an employer with massive financial and legal resources requires even deeper coalitions and solidarities. Given the default power asymmetries between unions and employers, and given that workers today face a hostile legal environment, the idea that a strike could win without deep coalitional work seems increasingly far-fetched.

Today, this coalitional work must foreground the fight for racial justice. As Adom Getachew writes regarding a similar approach among Yale’s graduate workers, “building union power and seeking racial justice at the university could not be separated.” In tight coalition with a wide range of organized groups and constituencies fighting policing, exploitation and racial injustice on campus, abolitionist graduate worker unions can wield their collective resources (more precisely, their ability to bargain with and withhold labor from the university) to further build union power, and to simultaneously issue anti-racist demands that refuse to allow any worker or community member to be subject to racialized state violence.

Yet more political education around abolition — and especially on the long, multi-decade and Black-led movement for prison-industrial complex abolition — should also be occurring within worker unions and in the labor movement. In addition to building with groups on their own campuses and in surrounding communities, graduate worker unions (and unions generally) could deepen their relationships to, mutual aid for, and solidarity with, imprisoned people — an approach that GEO also modeled by supporting the 2018 prisoner strike. Another example is given in Strike University, which wildcat strikers at UC Santa Cruz developed as a free source of political education and organizing trainings, roundtables and events, and which includes a program dedicated to abolition.

Graduate worker unions should embrace abolition for still another reason: as graduate workers escalate their struggles, universities respond with an ever-growing use of campus and/or local police to suppress militant actions. This was seen last February, when university police arrested and physically attacked picketing graduate workers, in an attempt to break the UC Santa Cruz wildcat strike for a cost of living adjustment. Using the COVID-19 pandemic as a justification to inflict even greater austerity, administrators will increasingly rely on law enforcement to protect their bottom line from fights against furloughs, layoffs, pay cuts, and other rollbacks.

Universities also often supplement the direct use of law enforcement by deploying community members to take on the role of community policing and surveillance themselves. One example was the University of Michigan’s “Ambassadors” program in which students, faculty and staff accompanied by university police patrolled campus to enforce social distancing. While the strike led to the termination of the program, the program’s existence in the first place crystallized a dominant strategy among university administrators to deflect responsibility for COVID spikes on campuses by not only penalizing students, but by normalizing this surveillance through the use of ostensibly more “friendly” community faces. This strategy allows the university to cynically undercut opposition and accountability for their punitive methods by securing the participation of community members in their own policing.

Thus, as Nick Mitchell has argued, “universities use cops not only to limit strikes, but to turn diff[erent] segments of the university against each other.” Police present their own actions — such as surveillance, union-busting and the maintenance of racialized hierarchies — as instead “efforts to protect the value of students’ investments.” Mitchell thus calls attention to a university-specific version of longstanding functions of racialized policing to divide and preempt the possibility of solidarity across racial and social groups. This history is actualized on campuses today in the punitive measures which are disproportionately taken against the students of color engaged in university struggles. By rejecting the divisions imposed by policing, graduate workers can help rebuild the solidarity necessary for a broad and militantly anti-racist labor movement.

To be sure, graduate workers are not typically considered an integral part of the labor movement, or of a future abolitionist labor movement. Nonetheless, our conditions mirror those of many other workers across the country: Many of us are poorly remunerated and overworked, indebted, precariously housed, and with minimal chance of ever achieving secure employment. By providing essential teaching and research, we make universities run and thereby provide the basis for boards of trustees’ ever-accumulating returns on the stock market and the million-dollar salaries of administrators. Graduate workers are repeatedly instrumentalized by employers to balance budgets through overwork and adjunctivization. While graduate school was once a fairly good bet for later employment, it now promises nothing of the sort. On university campuses, as in the economy as a whole, workers are on the defensive.

For Black, Brown and Indigenous graduate workers, such conditions are compounded by systemic racism and endless barriers to entry and advancement in a largely white-supremacist academic guild. Indeed, universities are laboratories in a particularly pernicious brand of racial capitalism. They are premised on the daily reproduction in close quarters of a racialized hierarchy of social groups, with disproportionately white administrators and senior tenured professors at the top and Black and Brown service workers at the bottom. Poor and racially marginalized graduate workers and undergraduates — along with queer and trans students, immigrants, students with disabilities, student parents, and still others — experience wildly different access to resources and possibilities of advancement.

As employers, universities have aggressively privatized and outsourced services to anti-union corporations. As real estate developers, they have overseen massive gentrification and racialized displacement in surrounding communities, often in partnership with campus or local police, while receiving substantive tax breaks as allegedly nonprofit organizations. As investors, universities level huge investments in the prison- and military-industrial complex, in imperialism and fossil capital. As anti-Black, settler-colonial entities that place property and profits over people, they sustain handsome budgets for campus and local police departments while citing revenue shortfalls to justify the defunding of the humanities and social sciences (especially African American and ethnic studies programs), student groups and mental health services. The fight against these conditions is nothing less than the fight against racial capitalism in the country at large. And given the central role of police in upholding racial capitalism, this fight must be an abolitionist one.

Recent anti-racist labor struggles have shed crucial light on this inextricable link between economic and racial justice. The most recent, and most radical example of such struggles is GEO’s abolitionist strike. While the strike itself was defeated in Ann Arbor, its lasting, national significance should not be underestimated. For it developed a new, militant form of abolitionist unionism, which shows the labor movement where we have to go, and which provides a roadmap for countless struggles to come.