UChicago’s no champion of free expression, it’s determined to silence grad workers that voted to unionize

Grad workers remind President Zimmer of UChicago’s hypocricy as he accepts a ‘free speech’ award for the university. Photo credit: Sam Joyce

When I discovered last week that Robert Zimmer was set to receive the John Peter Altgeld Free Speech Award at the Newberry Library on behalf of the University of Chicago, I assumed that Zimmer had fallen victim of a satirical skit. Perhaps, Sacha Baron Cohen had brought his latest show to Chicago? That the award was in fact delivered in full sincerity is testament to Zimmer’s success in absurdly, shamelessly cultivating an image of the University of Chicago as a bastion of free speech, while outright ignoring the democratic decision of graduate workers to form a union. Thankfully, colleagues of mine were on hand to remind Zimmer and Chicago of this fact, holding a banner behind him during his acceptance speech that read ‘WE VOTED GSU, #BARGAIN NOW’.

There’s no doubt that Zimmer and the board have had a large degree of success in projecting an image of the university as a defender of ‘free speech’. Especially since the letter to the incoming class of 2016 that proclaimed UChicago as an institution devoid of safe spaces, the university has been held up as an example by certain quarters. The letter, and other incidents such as the invitation of Steve Bannon to campus, have garnered praise for Zimmer and UChicago from the likes of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and not least, the far right. It pays too. In November 2017, the Department of Economics received a donation of $125 million from Kenneth Griffin, the second-largest financial donation ever made to the university. Griffin, who has previously donated to the campaigns of Bruce Rauner, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, specifically cited the university’s “commitment to free expression” as a reason for making the donation to UChicago.

While the university promotes its brand to potential donors and right-wing bloggers, graduate workers at the university know the reality does not match up. In October last year, graduate employees at UChicago voted decisively, by more than two to one (1103–479), to be represented by our union, Graduate Students United. We made it clear that we want to collectively bargain a contract, so that we can have a say in our working conditions and in the decisions that affect us, our students and the wider university community. Sadly, we have learned that UChicago is more interested in working with the Trump administration to silence us rather than working with us at the bargaining table.

Let’s remember that from the very beginning the university administration fought doggedly to shutdown debate. Zimmer, who developed credentials as a union-buster during his time as provost at Brown, sent out an e-mail calling for a “thorough, well-informed” debate on the issue while simultaneously assembling a team of professional union-busting lawyers tasked with rendering debate irrelevant. The university has spent untold sums on the all-male team of lawyers from Proskauer Rose, a firm notorious for its penchant for Big Oil and union busting. After graduate workers filed a petition for unionization, the admin argued in a regional Labor Board hearing that we should be denied vote on the matter. The absurd case rested on an attempt by the university to argue that graduate teaching and research assistants are not workers. Although their lawyers deployed some impressively brazen semantic-gymnastics — at one point interjecting: “Objection. They are not working. They are teaching.” — they lost their case and an election date was set.

Of course, the university filed an appeal, and then when graduate workers decisively voted to unionize, the administration refused to respect the result. Instead, they continued to work through the courts, knowing that the election of Donald Trump would tip the balance of the National Labor Relations Board in favor of an anti-worker agenda. While the university continued to talk to their lawyers and not us, we proceeded in good faith with preparing to collectively bargain for a contract, as graduate workers voted for. We elected stewards and officers, developed a new constitution and our union surveyed members on their experiences and needs as workers at UChicago. In February, when we submitted our request to bargain, the university reiterated their plan to silence us through the courts. In April, we submitted our demand to bargain and the university responded by telling us that they have no intention to bargain a contract with “an undefined group of graduate assistants” (a bewildering and disingenuous turn of phrase).

Initial bargaining survey results underline that the university cannot meet the needs of grads — who are fundamental to the running of labs and classrooms — without including us in the decision-making process. For example, 37% of grad parents report being “very unhappy” with their childcare stipend and none were “very happy” with the provision of diaper-changing and lactation spaces. Other results released so far highlight the insecurity and precarity that can be a feature of life as a grad worker. This is the reality when platitudes about free speech stand in place of co-operation and democratic engagement.

Furthermore, free-speech champion, UChicago, now stand increasingly isolated in its determination to refuse graduate workers a seat at the bargaining table. Whether inside or outside of the Labor Board process, UChicago’s peers are lining up to work together with its grads. New York University has long had a recognized graduate union and recently other private institutions such as Harvard, Brown and Georgetown have outdone UChicago by agreeing to respect the outcome of the democratic process.

Guardians of free speech do not relentlessly block the democratic process when it’s expedient for them. They do not then ignore the democratic outcome when they do not like the result. They do not prefer to legally maneuver and work with the Trump administration rather than work with graduate workers to improve their workplace. An institution deserving of a free speech award does not ignore its workers’ mandate to bargain a contract. President Zimmer, if you and the University of Chicago are the guardians of free speech that the awards and gushing op-eds suggest, don’t silence us, bargain with us. Now.

I am a PhD candidate, GSU member and graduate worker in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences at UChicago. I’ve previously written on the issue of graduate worker unionization for Novara Media, here