Dear Paul, Practice What You Preach: GSU-UE, The Kalven Report, and Unionization

The University’s opposition to unionization violates the principles of the school’s most prized document: The Kalven Report.


GSU members picket, October 2017.

By Maroon Editorial Board

For years, graduate students at UChicago have tried to unionize, to secure a seat at the bargaining table, and for years, the University has torpedoed their attempts. On January 31 and February 1 of this year, however, eligible graduate students will vote on whether to unionize. We, The Maroon editorial board, fully support ​​Graduate Students United – United Electrical Workers (GSU-UE) and condemn the University’s shameless attempts to curtail collective bargaining. 

Graduate students across the nation are fighting for their right to unionize. And they’re winning. UChicago graduate students are an important part of this tidal wave of unions. 

As the University administration has repeatedly stated  in campus correspondence and interviews, UChicago is powered by graduate work. Many undergraduate classes are taught by graduate students—not professors. Outside of lecturing, graduate workers are our graders, teaching assistants (TAs), and tutors. Without graduate workers, UChicago, and higher education in general, would crumble. Yet, UChicago doesn’t pay their workers a living wage, provide dental or vision insurance, or listen seriously to concerns about equity. Instead, they broadcast platitudes about valuing graduate workers and budge only when the pressure becomes untenable (such was the case with the recent raising of the floor for graduate workers’ stipend) . 

As it currently stands, the University has the power to do as it pleases with little consequence. They pad their endowment by exploiting graduate workers because there is no one who can check them. The power asymmetries between the University and graduate workers are stark and unacceptable. Unionization is a step towards closing that gap. Once officially a union, GSU-UE will be empowered by the National Labor Review Board (NLRB) to negotiate with the University. The University, much to its chagrin, will have to recognize GSU-UE. 

Instead of listening to the calls for union recognition by their own students, the University has been disseminating anti-union rhetoric, shamelessly employing tactics used by notoriously exploitative employers such as Amazon and Starbucks. The history of anti-labor tactics, though, clarifies that the University’s focus on union dues, “direct engagement,” and the permanence of  unions are straight out of the anti-union handbook. We find it self-evident that this behavior is unacceptable; however, we also argue that this behavior runs counter to the University’s own values.

The University, Unionization, and the Kalven Report

The core of the University of Chicago’s identity is its commitment to free inquiry—a core so sacred that the University launched a new center for Freedom of Speech just this week. This purported commitment, though, goes back decades.

In 1967—under the order of then-president George W. Beadle—a special committee released the Kalven Report, now “one of the most important policy documents” directing the role of the University in social and political action. The committee found that universities “cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted.” In simpler terms, the Kalven Report bars the University from speaking about policy issues, unless “society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry” or the issue has to do with “ownership of property, its receipt of funds, its awarding of honors, [or] its membership in other organizations.” 

The University’s public opposition to unionization qualifies as a blatant attempt to steer “social policy” and is a clear violation of the Kalven Report’s neutrality imperative. The weight the University is putting behind deterring unionization is precisely what the Kalven report was written to prevent. It’s unclear to us how unionization satisfies the high threshold of threatening “the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry.” How, then, does the University justify its speech? How are its attempts to dissuade unionization not in direct violation of one of the most beloved values of the school? After all, President Paul Alivisatos just reaffirmed his commitment to freedom of inquiry in these very pages. Apparently talk is cheaper than paying workers a fair wage. 

Why Alumni Should Care and How They Can Help

With the University’s laser-sharp targets on graduate students themselves, alumni, many of whom were once graduate students, get overlooked in conversations about graduate student unionization. Yet, alumni—through their donations to their alma mater—have the ability to turn the tide. The University will do almost anything to maintain the flow of money from the golden faucet that is alumni donations. Donors have a lot of power at universities—we call on them to use it for good. 

Graduate student unionization may be the right move right now, but it also promises to elevate the UChicago name in the long run. Alumni benefitted from graduate student work during their years here, just as we do. Alumni know that without the work of graduate students, their UChicago experience would have been impossible. The people who made and continue to make UChicago what it is deserve better conditions, and alumni can help them get there. Moreover, UChicago’s firm opposition to unionization reflects poorly on everyone associated with the school.

Graduate student unions are at an inflection point. For years, unionization was an extraordinary measure, one that rarely ever succeeded. Now, all across the country, unions are becoming the norm. Alumni can ensure that UChicago is on the right side of history by using their weight to discourage the University from continuing their anti-union behavior. UChicago has the opportunity to model what a university-graduate student union relationship should look like. It doesn’t have to be oppressive and adversarial. It can be collaborative and productive. Alumni should want the latter. 

Even after the likely unionization in February, donors should put their weight behind the many initiatives that GSU-UE will have on the docket. Hold the administration accountable and help steer the University in the right direction—and while you’re at it, send some money to GSU-UE.

After Unionization

Despite the University’s best efforts, unionization seems likely. Roughly two in every three graduate students have signed union cards, indicating their support for unionization. Thus—barring any massive upsets in the vote—GSU-UE will officially represent graduate students as a bargaining unit after the vote count on March 16. This expected win will mark the end of a seemingly endless battle for unionization, but the fight will not be over.

We anticipate that following unionization, the University will do everything in its power to weaken the union, stagnate change, and avoid serious engagement. The University argues that a union would make life harder for graduate students; we expect that the University will work tirelessly to bring that prediction to fruition.

The power asymmetry between workers and the University, however, will be less stark than it has been. With the power of the NLRB behind it, GSU-UE will be able to hold its own. We have full faith that GSU-UE can organize graduate workers and negotiate skillfully. They’ve been doing it for years. They deserve help, though.

This formidable wave of pro-union mobilization must continue into the bargaining room. It will take the support of undergraduates, parents, professors, and alumni to realize GSU-UE’s goals. We cannot let the University steamroll its way through the initiatives GSU-UE will put on the docket. Each faction of the University community has the power, collectively, to hold the University to account. GSU-UE can get itself to the bargaining table. But our voices, money, and talent, taken together, can permanently improve the dynamic between the University and those who sustain it. 

Noah Glasgow and Nikhil Jaiswal have recused themselves from this editorial because of reporting conflicts.

Clarification on January 20, 10:12 a.m.: A previous version of this article implied that the unionization election will be concluded on February 1. While in-person voting will occur on January 31 and February 1, graduate students who request mail-in ballots will be able to return those through March 15. The vote count will therefore occur on March 16. This article has been updated to reflect that.