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Students, faculty, campus workers hold die-in to protest UNC's campus reopening


Hồng-Ân Trương, a UNC associate professor in the Department of Art and Art History speaks to the crowd of socially-distanced students and community members laying on the ground as part of the Die-In protest on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The protest called for UNC to transition to fully remote classes for the Fall 2020 semester after a letter of caution sent to Chancellor Guskiewicz by the Orange County Health Director Quintana Stewart.

As students arrived back at Chapel Hill for another semester, members of the campus community called out the University for its decision to reopen campus this fall.

A group of students, faculty, graduate workers and campus workers gathered at Polk Place on Wednesday and participated in a die-in — the latest in a series of protests, petitions and demands for the University to roll back campus reopening. 

After a moment of silence for those who had died of COVID-19, participants laid down on the quad for more than 30 minutes. This was to show symbolically that the University will be responsible when students, workers, faculty or community members get sick, said Lindsay Ayling, a history graduate student and one of the organizers of event.

“I think UNC has been trying to place distance between itself and the outcome of its reopening fall plan, which will be suffering and death,” she said.

Ayling said the University is preparing to blame students for an outbreak rather than taking responsibility for the fact that structural policies and the architecture of campus will lend to a spread of the virus.

“Campus administrators need to acknowledge that classrooms are poorly ventilated,” Ayling said. “Dining halls are poorly ventilated. People are going to be indoors. So, while individuals can take action, it's going to be the institution primarily that will be responsible for harm. Because they’re creating the conditions that will lead to the spread of the virus, and any more so than one individual person, UNC-Chapel Hill is going to be a superspreader.” 

Some speakers shared stories about their personal experiences suffering from COVID-19 and the inevitability of a campus outbreak. Others, like grounds technician David Brannigan, criticized the administration’s decision-making process regarding reopening.

He said they ignored key constituencies who should have been consulted, citing a July letter from officials in UNC-Chapel Hill's Office for Diversity and Inclusion asking to be more involved in the fall reopening planning. 

“They even ignored their own diversity and inclusion committee, who had to write to the chancellor and say that they are not included on the COVID Task Force,” Brannigan said. “Despite the fact that COVID is affecting Black people and ethnic minorities at much larger rates.” 

Brannigan also referenced a letter sent to the chancellor by the Orange County Health Director Quintana Stewart, which recommended that classes remain virtual for the next five weeks. 

“That is a recommendation from the Orange County Health Director. Why did the chancellor not take her advice, but will take the advice of the Board of Governors and the Board of Trustees?” Brannigan said. 

Other demonstrations

The die-in is one of the most recent actions in a months-long effort by campus workers and graduate workers to protect their jobs and health.  

UNC’s chapter of United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, UE Local 150, has been active in this fight. Pavel Nitchovski, a philosophy graduate student and union member, said the union has centered its work around three primary demands. 

“We want everyone to be able to do our jobs safely and securely, we want our jobs to be protected, and we want a seat at the table for negotiations,” Nitchovski said. 

Miranda Elston, an art history doctoral student and UE Local 150 member, said the group has created demands, petitions and held socially distant in-person events this summer. 

On July 16, they held a UNC system-wide town hall where University workers from 12 campuses were invited to share their fears about reopening campus. 

In the following week, groups of graduate workers and housekeepers marched to deliver their respective lists of demands to campus leadership.

UE Local 150 also hosted a digital action campaign called “When Will They Listen." Participants could post about why the Board of Governors should listen to University workers, contact BOG members via phone or fill out a form that generated a unique email to over 50 recipients including the chancellor, provost and Board of Governors, Elston said. 

“They have not formally responded to us in any way, or acknowledged the demands, petitions, or any of the actions,” Elston said. “After the housekeepers delivered their demands, a few days later they did get a few changes, that their manager said, but of course they did not say that was because of our efforts specifically.” 

University workers and professors are preparing to enter a class action lawsuit against the University to demand a safe workplace. Lawyer Gary Shipman, a former member of the UNCW Board of Trustees, has agreed to take on this case.

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“The idea is that there is a clause in everyone’s contract that the University is committed to keeping everyone working in the safest conditions possible,” Nitchovski said. “What is being made obvious is that this is just not the case for a lot of workers — whether they are faculty, whether they’re grad workers, or whether they’re house cleaners.”