Grad Workers Deserve a Union

Notes from the 6/5/2019 issue

Graduate workers at the University of Chicago, who voted to unionize over a year and a half ago, walked off the job Monday morning in protest of a university administration that has continued to refuse to recognize the union. Under the banner of Graduate Students United (GSU), hundreds of graduate workers formed picket lines outside major campus buildings, shutting several down entirely.

Administrators, of course, could have prevented this at any moment in the last nineteen months. All they had to do was recognize the right of graduate workers to collectively bargain. Instead, they have stonewalled, drawing out legal technicalities to argue that graduate workers aren’t workers at all, and trusting Donald Trump’s handpicked National Labor Relations Board to uphold their arguments. Most of the people on the picket line Monday didn’t want to be there at all—they wanted to be teaching classes, doing research, and working on their dissertations. But the administration’s continued refusal to recognize GSU resulted in a campus shutdown.

It’s difficult to imagine that the economics of the situation make sense anymore—that the millions the University spends on union-busting lawyers and cops to monitor the protests outweighs the costs of giving grad students dental insurance. Instead, the question is bigger than that: whether workers and students will have a say in the governance of the university. That this is a question of power is clear through the heavy-handed tactics that administrators have used to combat the union, including a recent email to both undergrads and their parents, encouraging them to surveil their lecturers and TAs in order to “report unresponsiveness” to college staff.

In their increasingly desperate attempts to bust the union, administrators have only undercut their own argument that graduate workers are primarily students, rather than employees. When administrators threatened to dock the pay of striking workers, implicit in their threat is the belief that the compensation of these “students” is tied to their hourly work. When Dean John Boyer, in an email to all graduate students urging them not to strike, cites their “significant role in the academic achievements of our undergraduates,” he reveals that he believes the labor of graduate students matters for the entire university to function.

Nowhere was that more evident yesterday than in the empty buildings. The strike has proven what GSU has always argued: graduate workers are workers, and their labor is essential to the university. It’s well past time that the University of Chicago recognized the union.

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