Letter: Professors Support Grad Student Unionization

By Letter to the Editor

In the wake of the recent NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) ruling that graduate students, in their capacity as workers, have the right to unionize, we have heard from various members of the University of Chicago administration about what President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Daniel Diermeier describe in their August 24 e-mail as the “challenges and potential negative consequences of a union.” The President and Provost conclude that e-mail by urging us to “participate in dialogue around these issues.”

In the spirit of such dialogue, the University of Chicago AAUP (American Association of University Professors) Advocacy Chapter drafted the following response, which we posted on our webpage:

As professors at the University of Chicago who value, on the one hand, the special relationship between faculty members and graduate students and, on the other hand, the important work done by all those who teach and do research on our campus, we welcome the recent decision of the NLRB affirming that teaching and research assistants at private universities are employees under federal labor law, and thus can form and join unions.
In their August 24, 2016 e-mail to faculty and graduate students, President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Daniel Diermeier express their opposition to a union of graduate student employees at the University of Chicago. Notably, they do not dispute the NLRB’s claim that “a graduate student may be both a student and an employee; a university may be both the student’s educator and employer” (Case 02–RC–143012, p. 7). It is therefore striking that although President Zimmer and Provost Diermeier say a good deal about the possible effects of unionization on the student-teacher relationship, they have chosen to say nothing about its possible effects on the employee-employer relationship. As a result, they appear to concede the principal contention of those who favor unionization: namely, that unionization would lead to improved working conditions for student employees.
The President and Provost limit their critical remarks to expressions of concern that a labor union “could” undermine “the special and individual nature of students’ educational experiences” and “impede students’ overall educational goals.” In response, we draw attention specifically to the following paragraph in the NLRB ruling, which observed: “The Brown University Board failed to demonstrate that collective bargaining between a university and its employed graduate students cannot coexist successfully with student-teacher relationships, with the educational process, and with the traditional goals of higher education. Labor law scholars have aptly criticized the Brown University decision as offering ‘no empirical support’ for its claims, even though ‘those assertions are empirically testable.'” (Case 02–RC–143012, p. 7)
Many world-class universities—both public and private—have student employee unions. If unionization is damaging to graduate student education, there should by now be some evidence of that. The e-mail from President Zimmer and Provost Diermeier provides no such evidence.
Reasonable people may disagree about the wisdom of the NLRB’s ruling. There can be no disagreement, however, that student employees now have the right to collectively determine how they will relate to the university that employs them. 

 We sent this statement to the president and the provost, asking them to share it with the same members of our community to whom they had sent their own e-mail. In reply we were told that, “The administration does not distribute messages on behalf of campus organizations.”

This administration has advertised its commitment to “freedom of expression,” telling our incoming freshmen that “we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement.” But since the NLRB decision, the members of our community have been sent a series of anti-union e-mails—not only by the president and the provost, but by the Deans of the Physical Sciences Division, the Social Science Division, and the Humanities Division—while no one with an opposing view has been given a platform to speak. That is not the structure of a “rigorous debate.”   

While the AAUP is currently organizing a series of public discussions, information about which can be found on our website, we urge the administration to approach this matter in a collegial way that accords those who support unionization the same opportunities to express their views as has been granted those who have expressed their reservations. The NLRB has determined that graduate students have earned the right to be called workers and to unionize; this university owes it to them, and to the scholarly tradition it represents, that they be engaged first and foremost as colleagues and intellectual peers.
Willemien Otten, President
Ken Warren, Vice President
Denis Hirschfeldt, Vice President
Anton Ford, Secretary-Treasurer