UM contract workers, faculty stage ‘die-in’ protest demanding response from administration over safety concerns amid the pandemic

By Naomi Feinstein and Jesse Lieberman

University of Miami faculty, graduate students and ABM workers staged a “die-in” protest on campus after they say the university administration has repeatedly failed to acknowledge their safety concerns during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Between 20 and 30 people gathered, all primarily in black, with signs admonishing President Julio Frenk and UM for not providing a safe work environment.

“The goal today is that the university hears the different groups on campus who have been trying to communicate since March over their concerns regarding community safety and job security during this pandemic so we hope an action like this amplify our voices,” a die-in participant, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Hurricane. “

Members of the UM community hold up "gravestones" and dress in all black on Friday, Sept. 4 at the Rock Plaza. Students and staff protested to raise awareness about issues with university actions during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Members of the UM community hold up "gravestones" and dress in all black on Friday, Sept. 4 at the Rock Plaza. Students and staff protested to raise awareness about issues with university actions during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Photo credit: Ally Gaddy

“Where are you Julio Frenk,?” was chanted repeatedly in Spanish by the ABM subcontracted workers who gathered at the rock. Many of the protestors laid down to symbolize dead bodies, holding signs that represent gravestones that called on UM to take action. Faculty members chanted, “I cannot teach if I die,” and “my students are getting sick.”

“It’s important,” said a professor who attended the protest. “We need to express how we feel with what is going on.”

One protestor dressed as the grim reaper to symbolize the university’s decision to bring thousands of students back to campus and forcing workers into what they say are dangerous working conditions.

The protests come as UM’s faculty and administration continue to experience increased tensions after the faculty say they did not have a say in their course modality. Over 600 instructors sent a letter to President Frenk and Provost Jeffrey Duerk over the failure of the university to allow instructors to choose the delivery of their courses. However, professors say their concerns were never formally acknowledged by the administration.

“I don’t trust the way they are dealing with this,” the professor said, who wished to remain anonymous. “They don’t care how we feel.”

The professor added he does not feel UM has been sincere with their interactions with faculty, be it professors or subcontracted workers. They hope this will help to bring forth a conversation between the administration and all staff members, including faculty, undergraduate students and subcontracted workers.

“This is what we were forced to do,” said history professor Martin Nesvig. “The president and the provost aren’t responding to our demands.”

Although the bulk of protestors were graduate students and faculty members, some undergraduate students did partake to express their support of the protestors.

“It sounds like the administration listens to their students but not their workers,” said a student who wished to remain anonymous but was very vocal during the protests.

The student also expressed disappointment in the lack of undergraduate students who showed up in support of the workers and faculty members.

“It should be bigger,” she said of the protest. “It’s disappointing not to see a lot of activists and civic engagement on campus because a lot of people here come from a place of privilege and often they view people who are protesting and whose lives are at-risk as disposable and replaceable.”

This is not the first demonstration by UM faculty in protest of the school’s handling of COVID-19. Back in July, many ABM workers also went to Frenk’s office and stuck letters on his door with a list of demands, which included COVID-19-related paid leave and proper personal protective equipment (PPE). The workers were successful in receiving 10 days of COVID-19 related leave, but they still have a number of unmet needs.

Their current list of demands includes a meeting between President Frenk and workers, the hiring of more full-time ABM workers and no furloughs or layoffs if classes were to go online and the campus was to close for the semester.

“I want to be here in solidarity for contract workers who are not getting what they need,” the grim reaper protestor said.

UM’s COVID-19 dashboard currently lists 232 total cases of COVID-19 on campus. UM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.