University of Michigan
University of Michigan. (iStock)

After a protester invoked the pro-union mascot at a Jewish dean’s house, Michigan GEO clarified antisemitism has no place in their movement. 

The ongoing strike on the campus of the University of Michigan, led by U-M’s Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), caused some controversy last weekend while protesting outside of a U-M dean’s home. 

On Saturday morning, September 12, Michigan GEO held a protest outside of the home of Anne Curzan, dean of the school’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, when a member of the protests drew the figure of Scabby the Rat on a sidewalk outside the home with chalk.

Scabby the Rat
Inflatable rat in Long Island City Wikimedia Commons

Scabby, an unofficial union mascot born in Chicago in the late 1980s and early 1990s, has become synonymous with public labor disputes and is often used during protests to highlight anti-union behavior. The figure often appears at strikes as a giant inflatable, and has appeared all over the world in the U.S., U.K. and Australia, and was even featured in an episode of HBO’s “The Sopranos”.

But the use of the rat received blowback from what Michigan GEO called “concerned members of the U-M community,” as using a rat to denigrate an opponent can trace back to Nazis referring to Jews as vermin.

Dean Curzan is Jewish. She has opposed the strike, writing in a recent email to other faculty members that it “will damage a very important third party — our undergraduate students — who need and have every right to expect their classes to meet and their education to continue.”

U-M GEO released a statement on Twitter over the weekend in response to the blowback. 

“We want to respond immediately to the concerns we have received about a rat drawn by participants. We want to clarify that the drawing depicted Scabby the Rat, a symbol with a long history in the labor movement used to highlight anti-union behavior. However, given the close association of rat imagery with anti-Semitism it is clear to us that this image should not have been used. We regret the usage and commit to avoiding it going forward. We want to be very clear: anti-Semitism has no place in this strike or GEO,” the statement read.

The tweet was deleted shortly after posting. Amir Fleischmann, Secretary of the U-M GEO, told the JN they deleted the statement in order to prevent the conversation from moving farther away from the issues at hand, saying the online reaction they received for it was counterproductive and drew focus away from their strike and its goals. But the GEO still stands by the statement, according to Fleischmann.

“I don’t believe there’s anything antisemitic inherent in Scabby the Rat,” Fleischmann said. “However, we know context changes the meaning of symbols, and some observers who were unfamiliar with the history of Scabby in the labor movement mistook it for antisemitic graffiti.”

The statement posted to Twitter had received pushback from the pro-union crowd, who argued the GEO was giving into bad faith arguments surrounding antisemitism. 

“It goes without saying that GEO unequivocally condemns anti-Jewish racism and antisemitism,” Fleischmann said. “We are an anti-racist organization and I hope that is extremely evident from the different demands we’re making in this campaign, prominently including anti-policing demands and justice for international students.” 

The strike, which began Tuesday, September 8, is two-pronged, with the union pushing for both COVID-19 safety demands and anti-policing demands. 

GEO is demanding “sufficient, transparent, robust plans for testing, contact tracing, and campus safety… for graduate employees, a universal right to work remotely without documentation… for international students, better International Center support… for graduate students, unconditional support in the form of extensions to degree timelines and funding”, and more.  

GEO is also demanding “access to a disarmed and demilitarized workplace where lethal weapons are prohibited… the defunding of the Division of Public Safety and Security (DPSS), involving a cut of 50% of their annual budget and a reallocation of the funds to community-based justice initiatives.” 

Further demands include that U-M “cut all ties with police, including Ann Arbor Police Department (AAPD) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)”. 

On Monday, U-M took to Washtenaw County Circuit Court to order striking GEO members to return to work, seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against the union strike. 

GEO responded with a statement later that day, condemning U-M for going to the courts instead of working towards solutions, and stating their intent to keep striking. 

“This legal move is a clear sign that withholding our labor is working: The University is feeling our power,” the GEO wrote in a statement.

The JN will provide updates as this story evolves.

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