Grad assistants strike U. of C.

Members of Graduate Students United (GSU) march onto the central quadrangle of the University of Chicago campus as they prepare to rally on the steps of Levi Hall Monday afternoon. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

Student group seeks official recognition

By AARON GETTINGER
Staff writer

The members of Graduate Students United went on strike Monday against the University of Chicago. The job action’s goal is to obtain voluntary recognition from the University administration.

“You stand for something more fundamental than one issue: you stand for the idea that people should have a say in the conditions of their own lives,” said GSU co-president Claudio Gonzales, a doctoral student in mathematics, to strikers at a Monday rally on the Main Quad outside of Levi Hall, the school’s administration building.

The strike will continue through Wednesday, June 5, on which date GSU members will vote on whether to prolong it. In an interview, Gonzales said GSU is keeping track of things the strike has impacted and that the union would publicize its figures. “The way we’re going to win our union is by showing them how much they need our labor,” he said.

On May 30, 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 responsibilities to undergraduates and asking them to “honor our shared, fundamental responsibility to support [their] academic work and success.”

On May 31, Physical Sciences Division Dean Angela V. Olinto emailed the principal investigators of research projects that received federal grants. “Because no research effort will be undertaken by [research assistants] who strike, remuneration must be reduced on a proportional basis to ensure that grant funds are not expended on payments during periods that RAs intentionally withhold research effort,” she said. “If you have RAs who are supported on an externally funded grant, you are responsible for reporting reduced effort.”

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.”

Jesse Stern, a doctoral student in computer science, said he was striking because of issues with the U. of C. like that could be better addressed with union. “I have a lot of medical bills. The insurance is OK, but it’s somewhat restrictive as to who you can see, which makes it difficult to stay in-network.

“You’re only making low-30,000s, and that’s if you get summer funding — which is not guaranteed — and then you lose a couple thousand dollars on medical bills, and it starts to look much more questionable at that point,” he said.

Rhi Lavine said she is striking because she “would like to get paid on a regular basis” and better health insurance. “I have a genetic condition, and it was diagnosed while I was here. But the student insurance doesn’t cover the treatments for it,” she said, adding that an on-campus doctor told her that she should wait until she has “real insurance” for care. “We don’t really get paid on regular intervals, and they change it without telling us,” she said, explaining that her stipend has shifted unannounced from bi-weekly to monthly delivery.

“We have to change our entire lives around to meet bills on time,” she said. Jack, an anthropology doctoral student who declined to give his last name, protested with a sign reading “dental isn’t a luxury.” He needs to get a tooth pulled but cannot, as the student health plan does not include dental insurance. He is unwilling to take out credit card debt to pay for it on his own. “They’re changing a lot of policies, and we don’t have a voice in those policies,” he added.

A staffer at the School of Social Service Administration (SSA), 969 E. 60th St., who asked for anonymity called the strike tense. “We’re still at-will employees,” she said. “We can’t by name and outwardly put our names down in support. But we work with students, so we support feeling like this is their right to protest and ask for better wages and better working conditions.” She said the SSA has suspended assignments or otherwise accommodated students to support GSU.

Yoko, a lecturer in East Asian languages who declined to give her surname, was more nuanced. “Disturbing [undergraduates’] taking classes in a quiet environment, I don’t agree with that,” she said of the picket lines. “I understand, because they’ve been trying to do everything they can to negotiate with the University, and the University has been ignoring them. I’m sure they don’t want to do this, but at the very end of the quarter, this is a crunch time for us instructors, too.”

Some undergraduates said they skipped class to avoid crossing GSU’s picket lines; one noted that her professor had cancelled classes for the week. Other students entered academic buildings through side entrances, but Geoff Lamear, an undergraduate crossed the line to get to class. “My personal opinion is that the strikers have the right to peaceably protest; I have the right to peacefully go to class,” he said.

At the rally, Candis Castillo, Ald. Jeanette Taylor’s (20th) chief of staff, recalled her time as a GSU organizer, when graduate students from different academic divisions came together to beat “the Chicago School two-to-one to say yes to a union,” referencing the U. of C.’s famously conservative philosophical movement and the 1,103-479 vote in October 2017, certified by the National Labor Relations Board, to unionize.

GSU later left the federal process as the U. of C. appealed, fearing that a newly majority-Republican NLRB would revoke their legal standing. The union has unsuccessfully sought voluntary recognition from the University since then, which culminated in a 1,134-112 vote last month to authorize labor action. GSU officials said over three-quarters of the union voted in the second election.

“I remember sitting in court, hearing that the undergraduates’ education was a by-product of the graduate experience,” Castillo said. “I remember the heads of different science divisions saying that they would never hire you all, because all your experiments failed. And now almost two years later, you’re demanding again that the University of Chicago does what it has the legacy of not doing, and that’s respecting its students, its workers and its community members.”

“UChicago, pay your workers!” she said. In an interview, Taylor agreed. “Recognize these grads. They can afford to. They’re not losing anything by coming to the table for these folks,” she said. “Some stuff is just common sense. They’ve done the work: work with them.”

State Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) said that the U. of C. had called him before the strike, saying that GSU is comprised of students. Peters said he asked if they work, and the University said yes. “And I said, ‘Well, they’re workers.’”

He called on the U. of C. to recognize GSU. “This is an institution, but all of us here are going to redefine this institution for the South Side of Chicago — workers at GSU, workers on campus who do our security, who do our janitorial work — they are all together,” Peters said. “We are redefining what ‘worker’ is, and the University of Chicago’s legacy is to redefine the working class experience. And you all are workers who are going to demand and take back the power that we all deserve from people like [President Robert J.] Zimmer in their ivory tower!”

Bea Lumpkin, the 100-year-old Harper Square resident has been involved in labor organizing since joining the Young Communist League in 1933, addressed the rally after attending a meeting of retired steelworkers at 117th Street and Avenue O. “That ground was hallowed by the same strike that is going on here today for union recognition!” she said, recalling the Memorial Day massacre of 1937, when the Chicago Police killed 10 unarmed Steel Workers Organizing Committee striking against the Republic Steel Company.

“This basic human right that you are fighting for, it’s one that you will win — and thanks to the gains we have made as workers, we’re going to win it peacefully; we’re going to win it soon; and then you have to keep fighting every single day to keep whatever gains you’re able to win, so we can make progress,” Lumpkin said.

The U. of C. did not respond to questions by Herald press time.

a.gettinger@hpherald.com