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University of Michigan graduate workers protest for Palestine

On Friday, November 17th, 2023, the University of Michigan police arrested forty students protesting against UM's role in supporting Israel's genocide in Gaza. The interviewee here, Michael Mueller, is one of the arrested protesters. Please share and contribute to this legal defense fund for the arrested students.

Promise Li: Your union, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), or Local 3550 of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT-UM), was one of the first and most prominent graduate workers’ unions to come out in solidarity with Palestine. How did the union come to this decision? What are some of the actions you’ve planned?

Michael Mueller: This decision was really a continuation of a path GEO has been on for a while, of rank-and-file members (including Arab, Muslim, and Jewish members) participating in Palestine solidarity actions and pushing to incorporate Palestine solidarity in our union work. Like many unions in the imperial core, in the past GEO has operated in a “depoliticized” and service-model framework, which tends to limit our horizons as well as our understanding of the scope of workers’ struggle. However, in the past several years, rank-and-file members have shifted our union in a more militant direction, culminating in our recent long-haul strike for a living wage. This transformation (at times messy, and still unfinished) has included a broadening of our understanding of our interests as workers and of the solidarity work we engage in.

In recent years, members have fought for the right to practice BDS in our workplaces, for a condemnation of Israel’s ethnic cleansing (contrary to our parent union AFT), and so on, while participating in solidarity initiatives led by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), the primary Palestine solidarity organization on campus. This context—a product of discussions, debates, and labor actions in GEO over the years—led to our Organizing Assembly approving a statement and to a robust core of members participating in pro-Palestine campus organizing.

Palestine solidarity work at UM has a significant history, particularly SAFE’s struggle for UM to divest from companies that profit from the genocide of Palestinians—including a hard-won student government BDS resolution in 2017 that administrators refused to implement. In recent months, the student movement for divestment has grown, with SAFE and other groups (including the Black Student Union and United Asian American organizations), Jewish Voice for Peace, GEO, and 50+ other student organizations) forming the campus TAHRIR coalition. Many of the actions GEO members have taken have been as participants in this coalition, from student walkouts and sit-ins to civil disobedience for divestment.

about 75 people lie on a campus plaza under fall trees as if dead. Some hold signs reading "Divest."
Students Allied for Freedom and Equality die in for Palestinian liberation; image credit Graduate Employees’ Organization.

PL: Unions and workers speaking up for Palestine have been facing widespread backlash. What are some of the instances of backlash that you have experienced from the UM administration and other actors?

MM: Palestine solidarity organizers have always recognized that there is a Zionist playbook with a variety of tools meant to discipline and inhibit solidarity with Palestine: doxxing, threats to employment, false accusations of antisemitism, and so on. As a labor union of graduate student instructors (GSIs), we’ve worked to elevate understanding of the Zionist dynamics in our workplace and to defend against the repression that universities like UM, which prioritize their racist donors, levy against us as workers (especially Arab and Muslim workers). Zionist groups like Hillel encourage students to report their instructors for spreading “misinformation about the current situation in Israel,” which has enabled doxxing and disciplinary threats against GSIs; our administration has instituted or enabled forms of censorship that aim to inhibit pro-Palestine workplace speech; and Zionists on campus have engaged in racist behavior that UM refuses to properly address.

As the campaign for divestment has progressed, we’ve seen repression from the administration escalate. After several demonstrations in the weeks since October 7, some administrators finally met with the student coalition, admitting that the University prioritizes investment return over “political factors”—i.e., Palestinian life. On November 17th, given President Santa Ono’s refusal to meet with students about divestment, students entered UM’s administrative building (some calling to meet with Ono) and were met with racist police violence. Over fifty cop cars from at least ten Michigan jurisdictions were brought in to repress students who entered a public building during business hours, highlighting how far we know administrators will go to avoid accountability and divestment. With over forty arrests, campus police continue to attempt to intimidate students who are advancing a powerful campaign in service of Palestinian liberation.

In parallel, we’ve seen administrative suppression on the terrain of campus speech. A pro-Palestine referendum in student government elections on November 28-30, which called for UM to recognize the genocide and take action toward divestment, was canceled by the administration and ended in the doxxing of Muslim student activists.

PL: What were some methods you all used to counter and out-organize this backlash? What advice would you give to other workers organizing for Palestine and facing repression?

MM: Countering backlash is an ongoing task, and one that the student coalition has incorporated into our messaging and demands alongside the call for divestment. On the legal front, the student-created legal fund to help defend against police repression has raised over $20,000 to date. Speaking generally, students and workers have tried to respond to backlash through mutual support and collective action, such as organizing around grievances and department-level petitions,  one example being an ongoing campaign to remove a board member in the School of Information after her racist assault on a student at a pro-Palestine protest.

My personal advice to other workers facing repression for pro-Palestine action would be to process and deal with it collectively. This backlash should always be expected, and is not going away anytime soon, but building strong communities makes backlash more manageable and resistable. At the end of the day, we need to recognize that the harm of silence or inaction is far greater than the harm of Zionist backlash, and so we must keep speaking out, fighting the impacts of Zionism in our workplaces/campuses, and participating in the Palestinian solidarity movement as we continue to defend each other. Palestine solidarity organizers have pointed out that repression in the West reflects the ongoing violence of Zionism against Palestinians, and the stakes for Palestinian liberation are huge.

PL: GEO just wrapped up a historic months-long strike as part of a rising wave of labor militancy and unionization across the nation in the past year. What is the relationship between the union’s Palestine solidarity work and labor organizing? Why is it important for workers to connect between these things?

MM: One connection I mentioned between Palestine solidarity work in GEO and our role in the rising wave of grad worker strikes is that both have emerged from a process of rank-and-file transformation of our union over the years. To advance the struggle beyond a “fair raise” to consider how we need to lead dignified lives as workers—building on our recent campaign’s demand for real living wages and working conditions— requires a more militant union with strong rank-and-file participation. This also means a willingness to recognize and challenge injustices we face in the workplace like police violence, racism, and anti-Palestinian repression.

As workers, our material interest in organizing for Palestine also goes beyond the harms of Zionism in our own workplaces. Palestine is a cause for the whole international working class. Many U.S. universities and other employers support Israel’s ongoing genocide while underpaying and exploiting us, opening up the opportunity to link up our struggles. Meanwhile, Palestinians who continue to resist the Zionist regime have called on international trade unions to heed their call for BDS. Making this a reality—shutting down weapons production, boycotting Israeli universities, backing divestment campaigns, and so on—is a crucial task for all of us in the United States, the heart of imperialism and the biggest material backer of Israel’s genocide.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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Michael Mueller and Promise Li View All

Michael Mueller is a PhD student worker in mathematics at the University of Michigan and a Jewish anti-Zionist. He was an officer of GEO 3550 during the 2022-2023 contract campaign and is currently a rank-and-file member.

Promise Li is a member of Tempest Collective and a rank-and-file member of SEIU Local 721 in Los Angeles. He is active in international solidarity work with movements in Hong Kong and China, and anti-gentrification and tenant organizing in LA Chinatown. He was also previously active in Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU)’s unionization campaign as a graduate worker.