Photo: GSU/ FB

Grad student workers at fancy universities across America have unionized in recent years, primarily because they are smart enough to realize how they are being exploited. Today, at the University of Chicago, the situation for all grad student unions in America got much more grim.

Some background: in 2016, the National Labor Relations Board under Obama ruled that graduate student workers at private universities could unionize, just as their counterparts at public universities could. This ruling empowered a wave of grad student union campaigns at elite schools—and with it, an accompanying wave of incredibly hypocritical anti-union campaigns by Ivy League universities who fashion themselves as bastions of progressive values.

Last October, more than 2,000 graduate students at the University of Chicago voted to unionize, despite a clumsy and downright embarrassing opposition campaign from the school, which, by the way, has an endowment of $7.5 billion. Then, instead of bargaining in good faith with the union, the school chose to do exactly what their fine liberal counterparts at Columbia University did: refuse to engage and instead just sit back and wait for the Trump administration’s newly horrible NLRB to overturn the ruling that allowed grad students to unionize in the first place. This is now the standard playbook for many of America’s most prestigious universities. Their plan is, quite literally, to ally themselves with the most odious, anti-worker administration in modern times in order to get out from under their responsibility to bargain with their own student employees.

Now, this looming process of union-crushing has reached its farthest point yet. The provost of the University of Chicago sent out this email this morning:

From: Daniel Diermeier, Provost
Subject: Update on Graduate Student Unionization
Date: February 14, 2018

Late yesterday the Regional Director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) notified the University that the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and American Association of University Professors (AAUP) voluntarily withdrew their petition to represent graduate students at the University who serve as teaching and research assistants. The Regional Director accordingly revoked their certification as exclusive collective bargaining representatives, which had been granted following the graduate student union election held on October 17 and 18. Further union action on this matter would require a new petition to the NLRB and a new election.

This is a significant choice by the AFT and AAUP, one that unilaterally ends the formal process that began last May, when they filed their petition to represent graduate assistants. While I cannot speak to the AFT’s and AAUP’s motives in withdrawing the petition, their action naturally will raise many questions about the future of our efforts to ensure an outstanding educational experience for graduate students at the University.

Regardless of this decision by the AFT and AAUP, the union election outcome last October indicated that a large number of graduate students believe that the University should do more to support them. I unequivocally agree, and we will start this process immediately. I have asked Executive Vice Provost David Nirenberg to convene graduate students, faculty, and staff who will help identify ways to improve graduate student life at the University, including determining short-term and long-term objectives. Such direct engagement with students was not possible under the law while the union petition was in effect. This process reaffirms our community’s shared commitment to providing an exceptional environment for graduate students. David and the team at UChicagoGRAD will be communicating again on these topics in the coming weeks.

Undoubtedly, the AFT’s and AAUP’s withdrawal of the union petition will be disappointing to many students and members of our community. I nevertheless hope that all will join in these renewed efforts to achieve our shared goals. The many contributions that graduate students make are critical to the entire University, and we seek and welcome your involvement as we work together to improve the support our community offers for students’ aspirations, education, and quality of life.

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As you might expect, this email contains a fair amount of bullshit. It notes that the unions have chosen to withdraw their petition at the NLRB—which the school itself was opposing—and then does a fake little “we have no idea why!” thing. In fact, the unions made this move because they knew that they would lose at Trump’s NLRB (thanks in part to the opposition of all of the schools, let’s not forget), and they did not want to give the board a case that would let them establish the precedent that would take away private grad students’ right to organize. In a press release of their own today, the union, Graduate Students United, wrote this:

Graduate Students United (GSU), the union of graduate employees at the University of Chicago, has decided to withdraw from the federal review process and pursue a direct path toward contract negotiations as part of a coordinated national movement to protect the legal status of private graduate employees.

Faced with the university and Trump administrations’ assault on graduate workers’ rights, UChicago grads have joined graduate employees at other institutions in seeking recognition directly from their universities. In doing so, GSU is seeking to join unions across the nation that have reached agreements with their employers independently from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

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This strategy makes a grim sort of sense, but it may contain a bit of wishful thinking of its own. The NLRB is obviously not friendly any more, so turning to them for union recognition is a lost cause; then again, the universities themselves have proven to be (almost) as unfriendly as the Trump administration. But at least it offers a little hope. Chaz Lee, a GSU leader at U Chicago, points out that NYU’s grad student union successfully won recognition from the school, and others have had at least some success on that front. “The fact that we’ve already had an NLRB-administered election in October will be a factor in our strategy moving forward, since it demonstrates a clear mandate for unionization on campus,” he writes. “We’ve been preparing for a direct recognition campaign since Trump’s election made it clear that the NLRB would begin scaling back workers’ rights.”

It is not impossible to imagine grad student unions across the country wrestling their prestigious universities into voluntary recognition agreements, but even the best case scenario for that strategy involves many more months or years of hard public campaigning to shame the schools into doing what they should have done voluntarily already. Where there should have been an open door there is now—at best—another steep mountain to climb.

Money talks louder than the values of a liberal arts education. It’s good that the grad student unions are not giving up. But everyone should understand that we are now seeing the manifestation of something that has been true for a long time: There is not much difference between the behavior of a multibillion-dollar university and the behavior of a multibillion-dollar corporation.