Last fall in response to the ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that teaching and research assistants at private universities are employees under federal labor law, and thus can form and join unions, the University of Chicago’s American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Advocacy Chapter published a letter signed by over 100 faculty affirming our support for the right of graduate assistants to organize and bargain collectively. We expressed our belief that collective bargaining would enhance and in no way imperil the special relationship between faculty advisors and graduate students. We also urged our colleagues and University administrators at all levels to remain neutral while graduate students engaged in the process of determining their relationship to the University in their capacity as teaching and research assistants.
Specifically, we requested:
that our fellow faculty members refrain from organizing departmental meetings aimed at graduate students on the issue of unionization. Even when such meetings are cast as informational, the inherent power differential between faculty and graduate students can easily result in a coercive and silencing atmosphere, especially when those with official positions such as department chairs and directors of graduate studies are present. If such meetings are held, however, and particularly if members of the university administration are to be present, we request, in the spirit of providing as much information as possible to students on this issue, that departments seek to include representatives from Graduate Students United, and that these representatives be allowed an adequate opportunity to communicate their points of view.
We also asked:
that the University of Chicago administration remain neutral and not use university funds or other institutional resources to oppose the unionization effort. We ask that the University not employ any union avoidance consultants. Any communications from University personnel speaking in their administrative capacities about the unionization effort should not discourage graduate student participation in or support for the initiative. Additionally, we ask that the administration make clear to administrative personnel that a graduate student’s decision to invoke her right to organize can play no role in making decisions about that student, and that the University will tolerate neither intimidation nor retaliation against graduate students who invoke their right to organize.
While many of our colleagues have responded appropriately to our request, we have, in the main, been disappointed by the attitudes and actions taken by the University administration in response to the unionization drive. Communications from the University’s leadership have been misleading, alarmist, incomplete, and one-sided. At a moment when the University is presenting itself nationally as a standard bearer for freedom of expression, its posture towards collective bargaining on the part of its student employees has been obstructive rather than encouraging.
Most recently the University has challenged the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 743’s filing of a petition with the NLRB seeking an election to represent approximately 225 students who have hourly jobs at the University of Chicago Library. Alleging that the proposed timing of the election between May 31 and June 2, from 12-noon to 6:00 p.m., would “compromise the democratic process,” the University is seeking to delay the vote until the fall quarter. Rather than respect the filing as the culmination of a lengthy process of debate and discussion among students, the University has instead sought to change the rules of play in the middle of the game, hoping to force union supporters to begin from scratch the process of educating and engaging with significantly altered constituency.
We deplore the University’s stance and attitude towards its graduate and undergraduate student workers and we affirm the right of these students to organize and bargain collectively through whatever representative body they choose.
Willemien Otten, Chapter President
Ken Warren, Chapter Vice-President
Denis Hirschfeldt, Chapter Vice-President
Anton Ford, Chapter Secretary