A few hours before the Missouri Tigers’ first football game Saturday, a group of about 10 protesters gathered outside of Memorial Stadium to express their opposition to the university’s COVID-19 policies.
The group was made up of local union leaders, graduate students, undergraduates and activists. They call themselves the Show-Me Justice Coalition, a name that intentionally contrasts MU’s Show Me Renewal COVID-19 plan.
Carl Baysinger is president of Laborers Local 955, a union representing custodial, maintenance and food service workers at MU facilities. Baysinger said Local 955 joined the protest due in part to university policies on sick leave and vacation time.
Baysinger said that many workers feel scared to report any symptoms of sickness because they will be prevented from working and be deducted sick leave, whether they ultimately test positive for the virus or not.
“If they go to work and if they have any type of symptoms — if they say ‘I was coughing this morning’ — they get sent home without pay,” Baysinger said. “If they get tested for COVID, they get punished. They get days taken away.”
Members from the Coalition of Graduate Workers also attended the protest. In addition to supporting workers’ sick pay demands, the group is calling for an immediate transition to online instruction, on-demand access to free COVID-19 testing and a freeze of any cuts or the elimination of any jobs.
“I’m here to help protect our students,” said Michael Vierling, a PhD student and biology instructor. “As a graduate instructor I don’t want to see my students potentially contract a dangerous disease in COVID-19.”
Vierling said he understands concerns over how to teach labs virtually, teaching one himself — but he thinks it is not only possible, but necessary.
“It’s dangerous for the students and dangerous for the TAs,” Vierling said.
UM System President and MU Chancellor Mun Choi has maintained that COVID-19 transmission within the classroom is not a problem at MU.
“There is no evidence that there is in-person transmission in classrooms when everyone is wearing a mask and socially distant,” Choi testified before the state House Special Committee on Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month.
Vierling does not believe Choi’s statements are accurate, and he sees labs with shared equipment as the most dangerous classroom scenario.
“That’s why I’m out here,” Vierling said.
Andrew Amidei, a graduate instructor pursuing a PhD in English, said it is important for the university to be held accountable for the actions it takes during the pandemic.
“We demand the university not use COVID as an excuse for making cuts,” Amidei said.
Maria Oropallo, an activist with a group called Transparency Matters, said MU should remember its policies impact the larger Columbia community, pointing to the breakdown in cases by zip code.
“This is a community,” Oropallo said. “The university’s boundaries don’t stop.”
Amidei said it was heartening to see support from many of the cars driving by.
“It’s been nice to see people supporting us and honking,” Amidei said. “Columbia is actually a city that supports its workers. It’s been the statehouse and the administration that’s against us.”