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University of Chicago Graduate Students Vote for Union

The University of Chicago Graduate Students United, which has been organizing since 2007, voted 1103-479 on October 17 & 18, 2017 in support of the union jointly affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors. The Regional Director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) had ruled on August 8 to hold the vote, which the U of Chicago administration has long opposed. Before the vote, University of Chicago faculty: Yali Amit, Professor of Statistics; Anton Ford, Associate Professor of Philosophy; Elaine Hadley, Professor of English; and Denis Hirschfeldt, Professor of Mathematics, wrote this essay:

Robert Zimmer, President of the University of Chicago, is fond of touting his institution’s commitment to free expression. He recently described his university as “built on the ideals of open discourse, intense and challenging inquiry and analysis, and diversity of perspectives.” To those of us who study and teach there, these familiar bromides—–intended both to flatter us and, more importantly, to impress wealthy donors——have never sounded emptier than they do today, in the midst of a campaign by Zimmer’s administration to prevent graduate student workers from voting on whether to unionize.

Whether graduate student workers are well-advised to unionize is a controversial question. What is uncontroversial is that Zimmer’s administration has done everything within its power to prevent that question from being debated. All its pious talk about “open discourse,” “challenging inquiry” and “diversity of perspectives” is suddenly forgotten when the controversy concerns the university itself.

Since 2016, when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) affirmed that graduate student workers at private institutions have the right to unionize, the University of Chicago has mobilized its prodigious resources to prevent the formation of a union. Among other things, it has held our university community captive to its point of view with a barrage of emails through lists over which it has sole control. When students and faculty with opposing views requested access to those lists, access was denied. Such is the University of Chicago’s commitment to free speech.

Another example is the university’s newly-launched anti-union webpage, Know the Facts. On this webpage, “the facts” are equated with the administration’s position, and “knowing” is a matter of agreeing with that position. Under the heading Myths vs Facts, all the alleged “myths” are attributed to the union, while the corresponding “facts” are anti-union assertions made in the voice of the university. Under pressure from faculty, the administration eventually acknowledged views differing from its own. But such views are cast as “perspectives” or “advocacy”; only the administration’s position is presented as “fact.”

The University’s plan to block debate and the democratic process was clear at NLRB Regional Office hearings where its lawyers employed delaying tactics and attempted to discredit students and faculty testifying for the union. These lawyers presented the absurd claim that graduate students—–who, among other things, lead discussion sessions, manage classroom labs, meet students in office hours, grade student work, and even teach independent classes—don’t perform work, aren’t necessary to the University’s teaching mission, and don’t save time for faculty. Even worse, they enlisted respected members of the faculty to advance false and insulting claims. This process damaged the very relationship between faculty and students that the administration has claimed unionization threatens.

It was no surprise that the NLRB Regional Office ruled against the University. At that point the University could have let graduate student workers make up their own minds. Instead, it appealed the decision, hoping that Trump’s new appointments to the NLRB will invalidate the claim that graduate students work. How ironic that the former home of President Obama, under whose administration the NLRB affirmed that graduate student workers are workers, is banking on being rescued by Trump. The University wants to stop the vote. Failing that, it wants the ballots to be impounded before being counted, so that support for unionization among students will not be documented.

Throughout this process, the university administration has tried to prevent graduate student workers from unionizing, not by advancing persuasive arguments against their unionization, but by exploiting its monopoly on the means of mass communication, and by a series of legal and political maneuvers. If it were genuinely committed to the values it professes, the administration would present its case in a forum where both sides could be heard, and would then let student employees make up their own minds. That is what education looks like. That is what free expression looks like. That is what democracy looks like.