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Strike for abolition

A Michigan grad labor activist on striking to defund the police

The rank-and-file push to expel police from the labor movement has been gaining momentum across the United States. Unionists across industries are demanding to disaffiliate the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) from the titanic U.S. labor federation, the AFL-CIO. With schools reopening and COVID infection rates exploding in university towns, one graduate student labor union has levied demands for COVID-related worker protections alongside a collection of anti-policing demands.

The Graduate Employees’ Organization-Michigan (GEO 3550), which has protested the University of Michigan’s plan to send students, faculty, and staff back onto campus amid the pandemic, voted to authorize a strike on September 7. Their healthcare demands reflect many of the concerns that organized labor has articulated around safety and COVID-19. The Michigan local is demanding a “universal right to work remotely,” a childcare subsidy for parent employees, and expanded contact tracing and testing for “the whole community.” The GEO strike has found support beyond their own membership: resident assistants (RA’s), dining hall workers, and construction workers working on campus have all joined the GEO picket in solidarity with the graduate students

But GEO 3550’s demands around policing are exceptional in that they include the mandate of many Black Lives Matter activists: to defund and abolish the police. The union rejected, by a membership vote, an initial proposal from the University of Michigan which did not address the union’s policing demands.

Jeff Horowitz, a member of the union’s organizing committee, has been agitating for anti-policing measures in the union since last year. Alice Herman spoke with him about the union’s anti-policing demands and the role of labor in the abolitionist movement.

Alice Herman: The strike that your union is on right now has been called an abolitionist strike by many, including the Michigan Abolition and Prisoner Solidarity organization. What makes this an abolitionist strike?

Jeff Horowitz: So, the demands that we have… they’re looking to make changes within the police departments that can’t result in more police, or more police power. They’re in the direction towards abolition. GEO itself hasn’t been explicitly referring to this as an “abolitionist strike” but rather a strike with “anti-policing demands.” I consider these demands to be abolitionist, and those of us who drafted the demands (including me) had abolition in mind when we were doing this, but I wanted to clarify that this is what I meant by “abolitionist strike” (abolitionist demands within a strike platform).

Striking grad students at University of Michigan.

AH: One of the demands was for a “standard of force” for campus police. Can you tell me what that is exactly, and how adopting that would forward the goal of abolition?

JH: The sort of main reason why that ended up being included is because the defund demand was for a 50% [cut to the Division of Public Safety and Security], which meant that we would still have police. So we wanted to still make sure that there was some sort of standard of force that the union, and people in U-Mich in general, could establish before we get to the point where the entire department is dismantled.

AH: What role do you think the labor movement can play in abolition and how does your strike fit in?

JH: I certainly hope that the labor movement can play a role in abolition. Of course, GEO is part of the AFL-CIO. We put out a resolution over the summer calling for the AFL-CIO to drop the police unions. But unsurprisingly, AFL-CIO leadership just didn’t listen. They’re obviously still representing police unions. I think it’s gonna be a pretty difficult struggle. Something that sort of immediately comes to mind though is by adding these demands, we have garnered quite a lot of support and attention that I don’t know if we would have otherwise, from for example, some undergraduate students, some faculty, [despite] them not necessarily people who are part of labor unions.

I don’t know of any other strike that has centered anti-policing demands, but I’m hoping it will end up being the case that going forward, there will be more consciousness that police are anti-worker. And this is something we need to explicitly talk about when we’re demanding things.

AH: Your point about raising awareness and consciousness among faculty and students is really important, too, because union density is so low and there are just so many workers who are not represented by unions. So it can even be kind of hard to define the labor movement as narrowly as just union members.

JH: Yes, for example, non-unionized RAs at the school have joined the picket line as well.

AH: You’re also calling on the university to break ties with the Ann Arbor police department and with ICE. Those demands obviously go beyond the university. How you see the strike in relation to, and your demands in relation to, the broader Ann Arbor community?

JH: If you want something in Ann Arbor, you’re only ever like one degree removed from the University of Michigan. So Ann Arbor Police as well as the campus police, GPSS, are relatively closely connected. Ann Arbor Police Department has, of course, a very bad history. Aura Rosser, in 2014, was murdered by the Ann Arbor police department and the officer was actually promoted. And then-Deputy Chief of Police of Ann Arbor police is actually now working for [the campus police]. . . so there’s all these very close connections between the two departments, and we want to make sure that they’re severed.

AH: These anti-policing demands depart from more standard bread-and-butter issues like health care and wages. How has the university responded to that shift?

JH: They don’t want to hear it at all. . . basically the line, “this is not the role of the labor union” has been said many, many times. I mean, it doesn’t help that this is of course, not a legal strike. We have a no-strike clause in our contract. What we’re doing right now is already way outside of the realm of what is deemed acceptable for us as a labor union anyway. But actually, some of these demands were introduced during our formal bargaining cycle in March, and the university had refused to even discuss them. So that’s how we ended up getting here.

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Alice Herman View All

Alice Herman is a journalist based in Madison, Wisconsin, covering labor and politics. She is currently an investigative reporting fellow at In These Times magazine.