U. of C. graduate student assistants to strike June 3 to June 5

Graduate Students United (GSU) members protest on May 1 for union recognition and a contract on May Day. (Photo by Samantha Smylie)

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Graduate Students United (GSU) will strike at the University of Chicago for three days, beginning on Monday, June 3, according to an email that a teaching assistant sent to her class which was obtained by the Herald.

The decision comes after 91% of the unrecognized academic union’s members voted earlier this month to authorize the labor action. GSU is circulating flyers around campus announcing its members will picket outside U. of C. academic buildings during the 10th week of the spring quarter, beginning on June 3 “and possibly beyond.” The union is asking undergraduate students to skip class and not cross picket lines.

Later on Thursday, U. of C. College Dean John W. Boyer addressed the planned strike in an email to undergraduates and their parents, saying that “the University stands for freedom of expression and will protect our graduate students’ right to protest in a non-disruptive manner.” At the same time, he noted students’ right to “freely enter and exit buildings, classrooms, workspaces, and areas where research is conducted.”

Boyer suggested that students attend class and continue work, but he asked them to contact their advisors in four instances: if instructors do not arrive to teach within 15 minutes of its scheduled beginning, if instructors are “not available to receive completed work,” if students are blocked from entering buildings or classrooms or if instructors do not respond to emails.

Boyer also emailed graduate students on May 30, reminding them of their “instructural responsibilities” to undergraduates and asking them to “honor our shared, fundamental responsibility to support [their] academic work and success.”

U. of C. Student Body President Satyen Gupta, an undergraduate, responded bluntly when reached for comment. “We wholeheartedly support the strike,” he said, speaking on behalf of Student Government executives. “It’s high time the University stopped playing games and recognized GSU.”

On May 29, Mallory James, a graduate student in anthropology, emailed the students in the “Power, Identity, Resistance” course section she teaches, saying, “Due to industrial action, classes are to be cancelled, no meetings will be available and no emails will be answered on June 3 through June 5.”

James said GSU members will vote again on Wednesday, June 5, on whether the strike would continue. “Continuation is entirely possible, and graduation may certainly be affected,” she wrote, noting that the strike might affect the timing of students’ final grade submissions.

James expressed disappointment that her students’ learning would be interrupted — “How are you going to know enough about [French feminist philosopher Simone] de Beauvoir to write any of the essays that have been suggested?” — but urged students to contact the U. of C. about their displeasure.

The GSU strike has the potential to disrupt end-of-quarter and end-of-academic-year activities including the U. of C.’s graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 15.

GSU formed in 2017; U. of C. graduate students voted to form a union 1,103-479 in a National Labor Relations Board-certified election. Before it could be officially recognized by the university, however, GSU withdrew from the process, fearing that a newly Republican-controlled NLRB would reverse the legal standing of graduate student unions at private universities.

Since then, GSU has opted instead to work towards voluntary recognition from the U. of C. administration. Despite numerous protests, this strategy has been unsuccessful in garnering union recognition, which led to the strike authorization.

GSU did not respond to numerous requests for comment. In a May 30 post to their Facebook page, the union directed members to contact departmental organizers and stewards for further instructions.

“This is a serious undertaking, and one that will require mass participation,” the statement read. “We would much rather focus on the end of the quarter. But, after more than 19 months of stonewalling and condescension, the time has come to say that our labor cannot be taken for granted.”

When reached for comment, U. of C. spokesman Jeremy Manier released a statement: “The University has planned for a number of contingencies, and will be communicating with students to offer guidance in the event of a strike. We are committed to supporting our students’ successful completion of this academic quarter.”

After the GSU members voted to authorize a strike, Manier said that the U. of C. appreciates graduate students and is committed to their success — even those “who may choose to strike” — and that the U. of C. is working directly with them to improve graduate education and quality of life issues.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the latest developments.