Working People Podcast: University of Michigan Tried to Stop a Strike. It Didn't Go How They Planned.

Unable to stop the strike through the courts, university administrators have resorted to calling campus police, docking pay, and pressuring faculty to report on strikers, organizers say.

Maximillian Alvarez

Striking graduate student-workers and members of the Graduate Employees' Organization pose for a group photo outside of the Rackham Graduate School building at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on April 19, 2023. Photo courtesy of the Graduate Employees' Organization.

You can read the full transcript of this episode below.

Graduate student-workers at the University of Michigan are still on strike after hitting the picket line for the second time in three years at the end of March. In the time between the Fall 2020 and Winter 2023 strikes, according to the union, the gap between graduate workers’ average pay and the cost of living in Ann Arbor has tripled. Facing a cost-of-living crisis and fighting for a slate of core demands — from a living wage and affordable childcare to better protections for international students, access to gender-affirming healthcare, and the creation of an unarmed, non-police emergency response unit on campus — graduate workers are not backing down. Meanwhile, University of Michigan President Santa Ono and the upper-level administration have continued with their attempts to break the strike through the courts and even had the cops called on striking graduates when they confronted Ono about UM’s handling of the strike. In this mini-cast, a follow-up to our March 31 report at the beginning of the strike, we are joined once again by Alejo Stark, a grad worker and rank-and-file member of GEO, to give listeners an update on where things currently stand and how you can help. 

Disclaimer: Max is a former GEO member and earned his PhDs from the University of Michigan.

Transcript

The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Alejo Stark: Hello, my name is Alejo Stark and I’m a Rank-and-File member of GEO, the Graduate Employees Organization, which has been on strike for five weeks now.

Maximillian Alvarez: Alright. Well, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times Magazine and the Real News Network. Produced by Jules Taylor and made possible by the support of listeners like you. So as you guys heard, we’ve got Alejo Stark back on the podcast to give you all a critical update on the ongoing strike by graduate student workers at the University of Michigan, which you guys know about because we actually chatted with Alejo for our mini cast that we released at the end of March. So that was published on March 31st. We are recording this episode on Sunday, April 23rd, and as Alejo just mentioned, the strike has been going for that whole time and it’s been very heartening to see the public displays of support. I know that folks who listen to the show have been showing their support, been donating to the Strike Fund because you all have reached out and told me as much.

So I just wanted to give you all a huge shout-out and thank you for being true working class warriors and standing with the graduate employees organization there at the University of Michigan. And as I did on that last mini cast with Alejo, I’m going to give the same disclaimer for anyone listening that I have a very personal stake in this struggle. This is the second time that GEO has gone on strike in three years, and I myself was a graduate student at the University of Michigan for a number of years. I earned my PhDs there and GEO is my former union. So you can take whatever I say with a pinch of salt, but Alejo is a Rank-and-File member. Alejo is there on the ground with other GEO members. So as we do every week, it’s really, really important to get the most up-to-date news from the people who are actually on the front lines of these struggles.

So you can comfortably ignore me if you want, but please listen to everything Alejo has to say. So we brought Alejo back on to get an update on the strike and where things currently stand and what has happened since we last chatted. But to set the table here for you guys, I’m going to read a couple passages from a recent article that was published at the Michigan Daily, the newspaper at the University of Michigan, student run newspaper. And this was published by Miles Anderson on April 21st. So that was Friday of this past week. And the headline reads UMich Planning to Withhold Pay from Striking GSIs.

So Miles Writes, The University of Michigan administration is planning to withhold pay from non-working graduate student instructors and graduate students staff assistance as the graduate employees organizations ongoing strike continues into its third week. This decision comes after a state judge ruled that GEO strike violates their contract and recommended that the Michigan Employment Relations Committee ordered GEO back to work. And an April 21st email from the university two GSIs obtained by the Michigan Daily, the university said it will require all GSIs and GSSAs to fill out a work attestation form to receive their regular pay for the month of April. According to the email, employees who have continued working during the strike must provide verification of this work in order to be paid. Employees who respond that they did not work or who do not fill out the form at all will have their April pay reduced.”

So I want to pair that little update from the Michigan Daily with what I think is a very revealing Twitter thread by U of M Alum, Dr. Jennifer Rubin, and we will link to both of these in the show notes so you guys can check it out. But on the same day that that Michigan Daily article was published, that is April 21st, Dr. Rubin posted a Twitter thread, the first tweet of which reads, I called U of M today to voice my disappointment in their quote, good faith bargaining with GEO. A Regent called me back and we talked for over 30 minutes. I left the conversation even more frustrated with the university…” Now again, you guys should go and read this whole Twitter thread because I think it’s exceedingly revealing and shows just how fucking out of touch the U of M regents are.

And that out of touchness is very much consistent at the upper levels of the U of M administration. And by everything he has done and said, I think that very much includes UMich President Santa Ono. So in later on in this thread by Dr. Ruben, she writes, she’s referring to the region that she spoke with here, He empathized with how hard it must be to not afford food and medicine.” (Well thanks for that Mr. Bleeding heart). He went on to explain that paying graduate teachers more money would unfairly steal wages from older workers who were building their careers because grad teachers only part-time, it is not fair. When asked about the 17 billion endowment, the same regent said that to take money from the endowment would be stealing money from future generations of U of M students and faculty.” So this is how they think.

There’s no room whatsoever for understanding how the university is to use this regent’s language, Stealing the livelihoods out of the graduate student workers who make this Goddamn university run with their labor, their teaching labor, their grading labor, their administrative labor, their research labor, so on and so forth.” This is what it felt like to be a graduate student at the University of Michigan and pretty much anywhere else. You know that you are relied upon to provide so much of that essential labor that keeps the university going. But you are constantly told that you are not a priority in that your inability to pay rent and buy groceries is none of the university’s concern. And if you don’t have the means to sustain yourself while you are in graduate school, you should either take out more loans, take out credit cards, or I don’t know, somehow find time to do a third or fourth job.

I say this from experience, I was told directly by people in the university administration when I moved to Ann Arbor. That was the first time it happened, but it happened multiple times. But when I started graduate school at the University of Michigan back in 2012, I believe. I was coming from Chicago, having been a waiter there. And I saved up all my tips as much as I could and had to spend all of it on a U-Haul truck to get from Chicago to Michigan. And I spent the rest of it on a security deposit for my apartment there. And I very much looked for the lowest cost apartment I could find. The stipend that the university was giving me and other graduate students to start our programs in the summer was insufficient for covering my very, very basic and limited living costs.

I was living very frugally, as frugally as I could, but I did not have a rich family to lean on to help me cover the difference. And so when I went to the university asking what I could do, they first accused me of spending my meager stipend frivolously and chastised me in the way that poor and working people are often chastised by such institutions. And then when I explained to them that I had not been running around buying lavish meals and spent blowing all my money on useless things, they looked me dead in the eyes and said, Well, there’s nothing we can do to help you. If you don’t have family you can lean on, you should take out credit cards or more student loans.” Which I eventually did, and I’m going to be paying for for many, many years to come.

So anyway, that’s just some context here to remind people what we’re talking about and graduate student workers at the University of Michigan are fighting for many things among which is just a basic living wage to actually sustain themselves while they are there working, teaching, learning at the University of Michigan. And this has led them to strike for the past month. And we are going to turn back to Alejo now to get an update on how things have been going with that strike since we last chatted at the end of March. So Alejo, take it away.

Alejo Stark: Hey Max. Thank you Comrade for having me on again and really appreciate it. It’s been a lot of things happening this past few weeks. But as you said, maybe the only invariance or the only constant is that the administration, which includes the regents, are completely out of touch, as you said. It was bad when you were here, not that long ago. Imagine how bad it is now. I mentioned this last time, but I’ll mention it again, just the gap between our pay and the living conditions in Ann Arbor has tripled since 2020, since our last strike. That is mostly been rent increases, but also general cost increases which are squeezing workers everywhere.

And so that’s one of the reasons why we’re on strike and we have been on strike, but as you said, the administration’s completely out of touch. And I believe since we last spoke, they have continued to repress striking grant workers, not only through the attestation forms, which you mentioned, but also by sending us to court. I believe maybe Yeager talked a little bit about this in their episode with you all, but I want to mention this again because it’s just so clear what the university has been doing and the ways in which this is all blown up in their face.

Maximillian Alvarez: And just to interject there to let listeners know. We did have Yeager on a real news worker, solidarity live stream as well, and we will link to that in the show notes so you all can hear their testimony as well.

Alejo Stark: I believe since we last spoke in the mini podcast we did, the university sent us to court right away. I think that morning we talked, they filed an injunction and they were trying to get us back to work by claiming that our strike had produced or will produce or has produced irreparable harm. That’s the technical term. Irreparable harm means that it’s not something that could be quantified for in terms of a money amount, but rather we were somehow harming the education of undergraduates for the rest of their lives. So the example that they give is somebody’s about to burn the Monalisa and so you need to get an injunction filed so that you stop the person from burning the Monalisa which will never be retrieved or an irreparable harm has been done once that’s done. And that’s a very high legal bar for the university.

Nonetheless, that’s the route the university took. And we went to court, and this was I believe on the 10th of April and I don’t want to sound arrogant, but just the level of incompetence of the witnesses the university paraded and that wasted all of our time. We were there from nine to five. The university paraded associate deans of all sorts of schools, the School of Information, the School of Music, Theater and Dance professors from the School of Music, Theater and Dance, a registrar admin as well as the Chief of staff of the Dean of the College of Elton A, the Literature, Science and the Arts which is the biggest faculty of the University of Michigan. And they’ve all had no clue who was actually on strike and who was on strike. So they had weeks to figure this out. They had the attestation forms that you mentioned and they came to court and testified against us, and they still had no clue who was actually on strike.

Just to give you an example of this, one of the professors from the School of Music, Theater and Dance, as he was on the witness stand, told everybody including the judge that weeks before the strike started, he got IT to go into the different classes, basically the different systems through which people assigned grades or GSI or graduate student instructors assigned grades weeks before the strike started, got in and locked everybody out of their read books. This is weeks before the strike, literally locked them out. So he testified in court that he made graduate students workers jobs impossible weeks before the strike even started. That’s what professors was doing before the strike even started. He had the chief of staff of the dean of the college testify in court saying that he had come up with a Google spreadsheet that he had sent out to all department heads.

And of course not everybody responded. In fact, not many department heads responded which means that a lot of faculty are on our side. And he had asked the faculties, different department heads in different departments to fill in the school spreadsheet saying how many undergraduates were being affected by the strike. And as he is talking about this sheet that he had compiled, and the judge is looking over it, the judge asked him, Did you make sure that the students who were counted here were not over counted?” This is the chief of staff of the dean of the college, one of the largest colleges, the [inaudible 00:16:25], one of the largest colleges in the university.

And what he had done is he had added up all the classes that were allegedly on strike and had come up with a number, about 10,000 undergraduates were affected. And the judge is like, Did you even take care to make sure that you weren’t over counting classes? Maybe some students were taking multiple classes. Did you make sure that that wasn’t in fact the case?” And this dude is just like a deer in front of the headlights.

Maximillian Alvarez: Wait. So he added up just the total enrollment for every class, but did not consider or did not include the possibility that the same student could take more than one fucking class?

Alejo Stark: Exactly. And immediately our lawyer stood up and said, This can’t be put in his evidence.” And the judge just had to throw out this entire Google spreadsheet because it couldn’t count as evidence because he hadn’t done that, the discerning between different classes. This is again, the chief of staff of one of the largest faculties in the University of Michigan. So everything just flopped in court. What’s even more disgusting, maybe folks have seen this on Twitter already, is that the university lawyer, by the way, this is one of the lawyers with [inaudible 00:17:55] which is a law firm that also defended Snyder and his acolytes after poisoning an entire city, the city of Flint.

This is the same law firm that the university chose to hire to sue us. A lawyer from this firm went on to say in court while getting testimony from an undergraduate who chose to testify against us, she made the comparison that striking grad workers were like sexual abusers, and the undergrads were the ones being abused, such that they were not able to speak against the strike because they were afraid like sexual assault victims are afraid of their abusers.

Maximillian Alvarez: Jesus man.

Alejo Stark: This is just the kind of disgusting ways in which the university, its lawyers, its representatives started out just the week after we talked, started to repress the strike and they failed. The judge ruled against them, ruled that even though harm is effectively being done by the strike because the strike is disruptive, that’s the point of the strike. That’s how workers have power. It is not irreparable harm. There isn’t irreparable harm being caused and dismissed, basically the argument for a restraining order on GEO leadership. So that was a huge victory for us. That meant the strike to keep going. That meant that the court’s decisions weren’t hanging over our heads, and we escalated from there. So did the university that same week we went and took over the administration’s building, the Ruth Bend building, which was purposely redesigned for the lavish taste of the university administrators.

I don’t know if you got a chance to go to Ruth Bend back when you were here before, Max, but it was the Natural Science Museum and it was an open building. It was a public building which anybody could go into and go into the museum. And it has a beautiful rotunda. It’s an early 20th century building, beautiful rotunda, and now it’s just an administrator’s building. It’s where the president has his office. It’s where all his legal team and the vice presidents and so on have their offices. And so we took it over because this is a struggle, not just for our living wage, not just for affordability and dignity, but it’s also a struggle to transform this university and universities in the United States. And so it is the administration against all of us. It is the administration against undergrads who are facing tuition hikes.

It is the administration against faculty who are constantly facing all sorts of threats and pressures from the administration to perform all sorts of meaningless tasks. And is the administration against graduate workers who are facing an affordability crisis and are fighting for dignity. And so we said we’re going to take over the administration building, we’re going to turn it into a space of encounter, a beautiful space where we can have dance parties. So we had a dance party inside the administration building. We brought in some huge speakers and dance for several hours. We dropped the huge banner that read GEO Strike in the rotunda, and we had a barbecue going outside by some Latin American comrades who had been making barbecues at our picket lines. We had music. We had lecturers, faculty allies, undergraduates show up. We had a huge inflatable fad cat that’s strangling a worker that was borrowed from one of our labor allies.

So it was a lot of fun. It was a celebratory week. And it was symbolically also a way in which what we’re trying to do really is change the university, and take the university back from the administrators. The week after that, we saw what you were mentioning, the increasing retaliatory demands that we fill out attestation forms. And so the following Thursday on April 20th, just this past week, the university threatened to cut our pay. And so that same day there was an abolition rally at the Diag at main central square of the university to connect our ongoing struggle to get immigration protections for immigrants at the University of Michigan. And this is something maybe you didn’t mention last time, and this is just how pathetic and how out of touch the university administrators are. We’re merely asking them to codify protections for those who either have an international student status or are documented and we want them to merely check whether or not ICE when they come to campus or if they come to campus that they have a warrant. That’s merely what we’re asking them to do among other things.

We’re also asking them to fund an unarmed non-police emergency response program that’s been developed by community members here in Washington County. And we wanted to pay the fair share, so that’s available for staff and students and graduate workers here at the University of Michigan. And that same day, the same day they docked our pay, President Ono who makes a million bucks a year, went out for dinner and we saw that he was out for dinner. So we decided to ask him why he had docked our pay and what did Ono do? Like the administration had done the week before, instead of mobilizing the courts, he mobilized the campus cops.

So he called the cops on us. After we confronted him, he ran out the back door like a coward. That’s actually one of our chants. How do you spell coward? O-N-O. How do you spell power? G-E-O.

Maximillian Alvarez: Nice.

Alejo Stark: And he ran out the back door, went into his SUV with his bodyguards. And again, as graduate workers confronted him about our docked pay, he called campus police on us well off campus. This was not in campus location. This was in the downtown area of Ann Arbor. And the cops went on to shove me and shove a comrade aside. There’s a video of me falling to the ground after a cop shoved me, and then he goes on to detain me and another comrade. The same day the President Oho had docked pay. So I was detained for a few minutes. This guy wanted me to go inside his car, potentially leading to an arrest, I don’t know. But GEO comrades and other community members started gathering and started chanting, Let them go.” And we were let go. But I got to say it was very scary. It escalated very quickly.

The cop pulled on my arm and brought me to my knees. So there’s a video of me being arrested while I’m on my knees. And I don’t know what would’ve happened if we hadn’t had that many GEO members chanting and community members chanting at the cops. Maybe both of us would’ve actually gotten arrested, but we weren’t. Were detained and let go. And once again, the amount of support, as you mentioned, has been tremendous. Overnight I believe that our strike fund almost doubled just because of this incident and because of our docked pay, faculty allies have come out in full force against the attestation forms and against them being asked to grade our classes.

So the faculty Senate Siqua submitted a letter to the administration saying that all the pressure that the administration is putting on them to create GSS classes, Graduate Students Classes, is against their academic freedom. And they’re completely incapable of doing so because they haven’t actually assessed nor do they know our students. So they’re not able to really make that assessment. So it seems like every single pressure point the university has tried to put on us has blown up, the courts, the cops, the attestation forms, getting faculty on their side. So I think it’s just a matter of time before they cave and give us what we need which is affordability and dignity for all grad workers here in Arbor.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, it is no easy task to sum up a month’s worth of strike action in 15 minutes or less, but I think you did a beautiful job. So thank you for that. And just huge shout out to everyone, yourself included, who mobilized to put pressure on this administration. Because they’re clearly hoping that they can comfortably ignore graduate workers demands and remain at a distance from the actual workers that they’re trying to screw over. And so like you see the university president out about town and workers like Alejo confront him and say like, Yo, what gives? What gives with your graduate workers not being able to afford rent, your graduate workers not being able to buy groceries, your faculty being pressured to be like McCarthyite snitches on their graduate colleagues who are on strike fighting for these basic dignity and affordability and so much more?”

And the response is to seek the cops on these workers and to sneak out the back door as President Santa Ono did. And that must have been really scary to be one of the people detained by the cops. But I think it’s a real testament to the power of a union and the power of solidarity that so many folks immediately jumped to action, recorded the encounter, surrounded the cops, and ultimately applied enough pressure to force them to let Alejo and others go. And so I think that that’s a real important lesson for all of us to learn. Those mottoes that you hear from community organizations, unions, that we keep us safe and that an injury to one is an injury to all. Those aren’t just slogans. Those are the things that we need to live by, the ways that we need to carry ourselves in order to win these vital struggles.

And I wanted to just ask you, Alejo, on the more positive side, I wanted to highlight some of the things that you said there because I think we’ve definitely covered the overall shittiness and disrespect that not just graduate workers, as you said, but the entire campus community is getting from this out of touch administration including undergraduates, members of the public who come to campus, professors graduate students, so on and so forth. So we mentioned earlier that, not for this podcast, but actually over at the Real News Network where I’ve been hosting these worker solidarity live streams every month where we bring together folks involved in different struggles from different industries around the country. And I’ve been really proud of those, and they’ve really done a lot for keeping me sane throughout all of this. But the last one that we did, we had folks on strike at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

We got an update from the Medieval Times strike in Bueno Park back home in Southern California. And folks should also check out what the is going on there because management has been flying in scab workers to undercut the strike. And there was also video of people driving cars through the picket line, injuring strikers, and there’s a lot of really ugly stuff coming out of the Medieval Times strike. So please don’t forget about them either. But anyway, we had this worker solidarity live stream, and we had the great SN Yeager from GEO at the University of Michigan join us in that last worker solidarity livestream and Yeager, as they mentioned on the livestream. They’re one of the queer trans caucus at GEO and gave us great updates on the strike there as well. So will link to that. But one thing that really warmed my heart, it was unplanned.

I didn’t know this was going to happen, but it just made me smile from ear to ear on the livestream because I also had Reagan. Reagan is one of the exotic dancers in North Hollywood where dancers went on strike over a year ago at a bar in North Hollywood, and it’s been a protracted struggle. But these strippers were out there on the picket lines, and they were using different strike tactics and sort of themes for nights on the picket line. They’re performers. So they would come up with these different themes for the picket line, they would make it like a party, and it became this word of mouth spread around LA and Southern California. And these picket demonstrations became a really fun event. And it was very cool to see. And so Yeager actually got a chance to tell Reagan on that live stream that they had seen Reagan and some of the other dancers at the Labor Notes Conference in Chicago last year and learned about how they were approaching their strike.

And Jaeger was like, Oh, we’re using some of your guys’ strategies in our strike.” And that was just a really cool thing to see. I could see Reagan’s face light up about that. And I’ve seen some of the videos of striking GEO members dancing on the picket lines. I think there was a theme picket theme this week. So I was wondering if you could just tell us a little bit more about what it’s looked like on the picket line during this past month and say a little more about that support that you all have been getting from within the campus community there in Ann Arbor and beyond and what folks listening to this can do to keep supporting.

Alejo Stark: I know it’s been a lot of fun in the picket lines. I swear of God, I feel like every time I sign up for picket captaining, it just rains and it’s fucking miserable. But all other people have had a lot of fun. So no, we’ve had actually a wonderful picket lines. This past week we had the Beyonce Dance Party, Renaissance Pickett Dance Party, Friday, right outside the bargaining room, which was a lot of fun. On Twitter, we had a couple of weeks ago, also the picket line… we had a lot of Cumbia and barbecuing.

Some of the facilities people didn’t like that much, especially since we were out outside of the bargaining room. But you talk with them and they let us stay. In fact, one of the facilities people brought us some gloves so we can handle the food and the barbecue with gloves because of health concerns or something. But people were dancing on the picket line dancing Cumbia Latin American. And like I mentioned before, at the administration building on Ruth Ben, we occupied it for a good three, four hours with huge, huge speakers. One of the facilities person kept telling me, Oh, it’s so disrespectful for you all to be having a dance party during office hours inside this building. People are trying to work.”

Maximillian Alvarez: Fuck off.

Alejo Stark: I was like, We’re so sorry.” Yo just keep apologizing. And then we stayed there for four hours. So it’s been a lot of fun. I think it’s really important to have moments of collective joy in the struggle and that that’s part of what makes us stronger. That’s part of what allows to keep going, keep fighting in the face of so much repression, in the face of so much fear which is what the administration has tried to do at every step of the way through the courts, through the cops, through the attestation forms, and having this collective joy, finding each other at the picket lines, finding each other at the general membership meetings, finding each other dancing collectively is powerful. People feel empowered by that. People feel like they’re a part of something and that they can fight for what they’re fighting for. And what they’re fighting for is just, and what they’re trying to do is make us feel afraid because they know that when we’re together, we’re powerful. And so it’s been a lot of fun. It’s been really powerful, and it’s been a lot of joy out in the picket lines.

I think we’ve gotten a lot of support. In this past week, we had a really awesome event too with comrades that were connecting the struggle against Cop City and our abolition demands that was almost exclusively organized by community members here. That was part of our abolition rally on Thursday. So we’re making broader connections beyond campus. Like I said before, our abolition demands are part of a framework that we’ve been following other unions as well, which is the framework of bargaining for the common good. We’re not just bargaining for ourselves, we’re bargaining for a broader community as well. And just to give a brief mention of this, our demand for living wage max is about a 32 million figure that we’re asking for. Coincidentally, that is the exact same budget amount that the university spends on campus cops. So we think that these things are connected, these things are related.

And so when we talk about affordability and dignity, it is affordability and dignity not just for graduate workers, but for everybody as well. And I think we’ve seen that also in terms of the support that we’ve gotten from alumni like yourself, but others as well as faculty and undergrads. Undergraduates recognize that their studying conditions and their educational conditions are obviously our working conditions too. And so understanding that this is part of a broader fight to transform this university and this world. We know solidarity forever. The song that we sing every single time, which is actually an old IWW song that you mentioned before, it’s not just a fight for the union, it’s a fight to bring forth and to give birth to a new world from the ashes of the old.

And I think that’s precisely what we’re fighting for in the last instance, so people can continue to support us. This next week’s going to be crucial. We’re going to finals, and the university’s going to continue to ramp up. It’s a tax on us. And so we encourage people to give to a strike fund, which it’s on [inaudible 00:38:49] Butter, and I’m sure you can post a link to it there if you’re an alum or if your son or daughter, whomever might be at the University of Michigan. Call the university as comrades have been doing as well, and continue to support in whatever way you can. But primarily through the Strike Fund.

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Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InThe​se​Times​.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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