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“Worker Power Is a Threat to the Way the University Is Run”

Laura Colaneri

Graduate workers at the University of Chicago are on strike this week. They’re demanding union recognition from an administration that is relying on a Trump-appointed labor board’s hostility to workers to deny graduate workers’ organizing rights.

An empty classroom at the University of Chicago today. uchicagogsu / Twitter

Interview by
Sean Duffy

This week, graduate student workers at the University of Chicago are engaging in a three-day work action to demand the university recognize their union, Graduate Students United.

The action comes shortly after graduate workers went on strike at University of Illinois-Chicago, resulting in major wins, as well as recent teacher strikes at charter schools in the city that made similar gains for teachers. The work action at UChicago is also part of the larger teacher strike wave happening across the country, starting with teachers in West Virginia inspired by the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012 and whose current contract expires at the end of the month.

The week before the strike, Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member Sean Duffy spoke with Laura Colaneri, a student in her third year of a romance languages and literature PhD who teachers Spanish 102 and coordinates student workshops, a member of Graduate Students United, and a member of DSA.


SD

Can you give a background on how Graduate Students United (GSU) formed and the union’s history of organizing so far?

LC

GSU has been organizing for over a decade. We really have not had a voice on campus. The administration and faculty often hold committees that say “graduate input is welcomed,” but that doesn’t mean those are things are binding or listened to.

In the past few years, organizing has really accelerated. In 2016, in a case specific to Columbia University, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) overturned a previous ruling, Brown in 2004, allowing graduate workers at private universities to unionize. Previously to that, that 2004 ruling said that at private universities you couldn’t unionize, but at public universities, you could.

Things were starting to ramp up my first year here in the wake of that ruling. We had a vote for the union in 2017, and we overwhelmingly voted yes. But the strategy of the university administration and President Robert Zimmer has been to just ignore that vote for the past nineteen months. They’re relying heavily on the fact that the NLRB is now Trump-appointed and thus anti-union and likely to be unfriendly to us if a case was brought to them.

Nineteen months later, we are out of options. So we voted to stop work, in order to call on the administration to recognize our union.

SD

GSU pulled their petition for union recognition early in 2018 because of the fear that the Trump NLRB could use it as a case to overturn graduate workers’ right to organize. Is that still a threat? If the NLRB did reverse the 2016 decision, what would the implications be for GSU?

LC

We’re not just graduate student workers at our own university but part of a movement of other workers fighting for the exact same rights and benefits. So in the wake of that decision, many student worker organizations that had already been organizing for several years held recognition votes, and several of them were voluntarily recognized by their administrations. That’s the case at Columbia (although they had to threaten a work action) and Brown.

On the one hand, as a member and a worker and a socialist, my view is that we don’t receive our rights as workers from the state or the NLRB — they’re there to negotiate our rights, but ultimately we take power for ourselves and we assert our own rights. The threat is definitely there, and it continues. There’s recently been a whisper of announcements that new things may be coming down from the Trump NLRB. But that won’t stop our efforts, especially since we’ve pulled that petition anyway.

We’re going to continue organizing locally, and the administration can choose to voluntarily recognize us at any time. They don’t have to rely on this decision, and they certainly don’t have to put up Trump’s anti-union NLRB as a shield to protect themselves against worker power.

SD

Why won’t the University of Chicago administration recognize GSU? Do you think there’s any interplay here with the kind of notorious hyper-capitalist ideology that their economics program has been pumping out for decades?

LC

It’s a complicated question. Zimmer, the University of Chicago president, can be held responsible for a lot of the administration’s anti-worker approach. In that 2004 ruling, he was at Brown, and he spearheaded that campaign to prevent graduate workers from being able to organize on private campuses. That ruling was overturned in 2016, and now Brown has a graduate student union. So it’s not clear to me why he would chose to do this again when he’s already failed before.

Whether it’s adjuncts, graduate workers, full-time tenured professors, clerical staff — worker power is a threat to the way the university is run. It’s very administration-heavy; we have very highly paid administrative staff. The whole modern university model depends upon the precarity of workers to continue functioning.

It’s really important for us to recognize the plight of adjuncts in this fight for graduate student worker organization, because two years ago they had to threaten a work action just to get the university to come to the table for a reasonable contract. It’s not just us on this campus — it’s many workers who are being excluded from the decision-making process on this campus, excluded from being paid a fair wage for their work, excluded from being treated like a vital part of what makes this university function.

The other part of the question is a longstanding philosophical and political one. As a student of Latin American studies, I have very deep qualms with the reputation of University of Chicago and the implications of the economics department’s “shock-doctrine” neoliberalism. This focus on austerity and preventing worker power and opposing unions is sewn into the fabric of UChicago as an institution. In some ways, the tenor of the economics department right now isn’t so much about that. But it’s part of our institutional history.

And without a doubt that continues to bear upon the present, not just here but in Latin America, across the United States, and in many different regions. Anytime UChicago says “you’re not workers, and we don’t want to recognize your right to collective bargaining and a collective voice,” they’re leaning back into that institutional history.

SD

Much of the opposition to graduate worker organizing is this idea that graduate students’ work isn’t actually “work.”

LC

That’s one of the central talking points of the administration — that our work isn’t work. They often call it things like “pedagogical training” or say it’s “learning, not working.” I teach Spanish 102, the exact same class that an adjunct does. In some instances, people who were formerly in my grad program and left it now teach this exact class.

There are fifteen students in my class — paying frankly exorbitant tuition — to learn from me. I teach Spanish, so I’m imparting very essential knowledge: the ability to connect with other cultures and develop new language skills. I fail to see how that work is different from the work that another professor is doing, whether they’re adjunct or tenure-track. I’m a teacher. Plus I’m doing a lot of other administrative labor that goes into my workshop coordinator job.

They want to say that it’s purely for our benefit, but it’s hard when you’re spending time, several hours a day in your office grading quizzes over and over, to see it as anything other than labor done for the benefit of my students and for the benefit of this institution.

SD

Does GSU have solidarity among most undergraduate students?

LC

The support has been amazing to see. I think we do have solidarity among most undergraduates. I’ve spoken to my students directly about the action and what it means for me to be in a union and to be a graduate worker. And that’s because I’m forced to disrupt their class, the class I am teaching. And I want to make sure that they are aware of the reasons why I’m doing this, and what my life is like, what my living conditions are, what my working conditions are.

There’s a lot of housing insecurity for graduate workers. Recent surveys show food insecurity among graduate workers. So if the teacher of your Spanish class is a food-insecure instructor, you don’t want that to be their life. You want your teacher to be well paid, to be able to live in Hyde Park [the neighborhood the University of Chicago is in] and be near campus and be able to come in to work every day ready to give their all to teaching you, so you can learn. I think that’s what my students really think.

SD

Because the union has not been recognized by the university, could there be retaliation? Are there protections in place for GSU?

LC

It’s still not legal for them to retaliate against any union-related actions. But questions about legality are murky. Just because it’s illegal for them to do that doesn’t mean there won’t be some form of retaliation. I think a lot of members of the union are scared about that.

I experienced a union-busting tactic earlier in the fall. We hosted a walkout, which was one of our earlier actions, and I tweeted that one of the reasons I was walking out was that I received my pay for my workshop coordinator job four weeks late this quarter, and that’s one of the reasons why we need the union. My Twitter account is public but doesn’t have my last name or anything. I received an email shortly thereafter from the dean of the Division of the Humanities.

To me, that’s a classic union-busting technique, that’s trying to divide and conquer. Saying “hey, come to my office we’ll talk about this problem you’re having,” when in reality, the goal isn’t to deal with the problem. I did go to her office with several other GSU members, and we talked about it, and she couldn’t solve the problem — it wasn’t within the purview of her job. She was trying to pressure me. I heard through GSU organizers she did that to several other people as well.

There’s no way of knowing what their techniques are going to be. They’ll have something in store for us. But members are strong, we have the numbers on our side, we have a lot of solidarity from undergrads, faculty, and from other workers on campus. And we’re ready.

SD

Would you say a lot of GSU members are socialists? Do you see graduate worker organizing as having specific strategic value for socialists?

LC

Yeah, there are probably a lot of other socialists in GSU. I know there are at least three or four other active DSA members in GSU. It’s a radicalizing experience. When I first came here in 2016, I heard about the unionizing efforts and was like, “oh well, I’ll look at both sides and I’ll see what the deal is. I don’t really know about anything about this campus.” It very quickly became clear to me that this was deeply important.

On the one hand, we’re challenging the idea that any of the labor we do isn’t work. Teaching is both productive and reproductive labor, and it is really essential work that is reproducing the workforce for people. They’re receiving our work to then create more workers. That’s work that’s systematically underpaid and undervalued.

Beyond that, the prospects in academia are bleak. All graduate workers are aware of that. Very few people come in optimistic that they’re going to get a cushy, tenure-track job. You’re probably going to be poorly paid, you’re statistically likely to be an adjunct and have trouble finding a tenure-track job, because those are vanishing. In the meantime, we’re already exposed to precarity while on campus as graduate workers who have our labor systemically undervalued, not treated like it’s work — like everything is a gift for our own benefit, like you’re paying me for the work I do out of the goodness of your heart rather than because I’m producing value for you.

As student workers, we’re not stuck in some ivory tower while doing this organizing. We’re deeply engaging with these questions of labor and value and what it means to have our work exploited by an enormous administration and institution that’s full of highly paid administrators, charging exorbitant tuition to its students and not passing any of that down to any of the people who are doing the work to make the institution run.  It’s a radicalizing experience.

It’s a ripe area for us to be pushing and organizing in.

SD

You mentioned the rising cost of living in Hyde Park. How does the fight for recognition of GSU relate to the other issues affecting the area, such as gentrification and displacement?

LC

I live in Woodlawn now because, compared to Hyde Park, it’s a lot more affordable, which kind of means I’m contributing to the gentrification of that neighborhood. The community has been organizing, and the election of Jeanette Taylor as alderman of the twentieth ward is a testament to that. She’s an incredible community organizer. I have a lot of hope she’ll defend the community on the city council.

There’s organizing for a community benefits agreement related to the Obama Center, but also with the University of Chicago, which is expanding south as well with a new undergraduate dorm being built. There’s also the development of a hotel related to the Obama center.

I see all those struggles as interrelated. Our struggle as graduate workers is very much related to where we live, the price of housing, the price of food, whether we’re able to have a stable life and not have to move every year because rent is going up too much. And that ties perfectly into the community; their concerns should be our concerns, and we should be fighting all these battles together.

There’s also been the formation of the UChicago Labor Council, which has been trying to unite some of the different labor groups on campus. We’re not the only union in Hyde Park. There are workers affiliated with UChicago directly — in the hospital, professors, adjuncts, clerical staff in the libraries and all of the administrative offices. This university doesn’t run without us, and it also doesn’t run without them.

As graduate workers, we don’t want to be exploited, we want to have more of a democratic say and a collective voice in what our working conditions are. The same goes for them.