Ann Arbor University of Michigan
University of Michigan (iStock)

The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Michigan argued that the university had failed to protect its students and employees as it brought thousands of students back to Ann Arbor during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Labor Day, members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Michigan authorized a strike to demand safe working conditions for students, staff and faculty. The GEO argued that the university had failed to protect its students and employees as it brought thousands of students back to Ann Arbor during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Graduate workers demanded basic health and safety precautions, including a right to work remotely and the demilitarization of campus police. The strike ended on Sept. 16, when GEO accepted a bargain under threat of injunction.

Many stories have been told about why GEO went on strike, but only one tells the whole story: This strike demanded the preservation of human life. As graduate students, instructors and members of the union, our participation in the strike required us to sacrifice some obligations to our students and our employer. But as Jews, we are taught pikuach nefesh, the obligation to forgo almost any other duty when fulfilling that duty might endanger a human life.

This risk is neither hypothetical nor hyperbolic. As of Sept. 14, 1,400 infections in Michigan were already connected to school and college outbreaks. Since the pandemic began in March, at least five U-M employees have died of COVID-19. Everything we know about Jewish law and Jewish ethics tells us that decisive action to prevent additional loss of life, even if it is disruptive or transgresses norms and rules, is not just acceptable but necessary.

Even sacred obligations can bend to this requirement; in the Talmud, as part of tractate Yoma 83a, Rabbi Matya ben Ḥarash tells us that “with regard to one who suffers pain in his throat, one may place medicine inside his mouth on Shabbat,” because “a case of uncertainty concerning a life-threatening situation overrides Shabbat.” There is a high bar to invoking pikuach nefesh, but many have already argued that some very important obligations cannot be fulfilled during this pandemic.

Ensuring Student Safety

As instructors, we know that teaching and learning are sacred virtues. We owe instruction to our students, and we owe our labor to the university. There is also a Jewish obligation to study; Rabbi Joseph Telushkin tells of finding an old book stamped by “the society of woodchoppers for the study of Mishnah in Berditchev.” But as Jews, we cannot enter a classroom where essential precautions have not been taken to ensure students’ safety, and we cannot stand by while others are forced to do so.

Anyone who walked through our campus last week might have heard picketers chanting the almost Talmudic exhortations “dead students can’t learn” and “workers have a right to breathe.” Judaism values complexity and nuance. Our religious texts overflow not just with laws, but with layers upon layers of interpretations of those laws that form a sprawling tapestry that many have devoted their entire lives to understanding and exploring. But when human life is on the line, Judaism speaks with a startling simplicity and bracing moral clarity: laws and restrictions must yield to the imperative of human life.

The GEO strike belongs to the long history of labor militancy for the causes of safety and justice, in which Jewish workers have played essential roles. Calls for better pay and safer working conditions sparked the uprising of the 20,000 women shirtwaist workers in 1909. When 23-year-old Clara Lemlich took the stage at Cooper Union in New York City to address her fellow workers in Yiddish, she knew that only bold collective action could guarantee the safety that Jewish ethics teaches us is fundamental.

Then, as now, the imperative to protect life necessitated clarity of thought and action. Those brave strikers won, but the tragic consequences of the indifference to human life too often shown by the powerful soon became even clearer.

Just a few months after the end of the strike, at a factory that refused to abide by the deal the union negotiated, a fire broke out. The infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster killed 146 workers, mostly young females. We know the consequences of trusting bosses and administrators, who have shown again and again that our lives are cheap, and profit is dear.

We joined the picket lines to protect ourselves, our students, and our community. For eight days, we were proud to freeze campus in a pure expression of pikuach nefesh.

Samuel Baltz is a Ph.D. student in political science and scientific computing at the University of Michigan where he studies computational models of elections. Danny Blinderman is a Ph.D. student in political science at U-M where he studies the relationship between social movements, constitutional development and democratization. He is also a steward for GEO.

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