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October 20, 2016

GSU Hosts Pro-Unionization Speakers

Journalist and political theorist Corey Robin visited the University on Monday afternoon to advocate for graduate student unionization. 

This event was coordinated by the University of Chicago’s American Association of University Professors (AAUP) advocacy chapter, in collaboration with Graduate Students United (GSU). 

Robin was joined by Adom Getachew, an assistant professor in the political science department, and Denis Hirschfeldt, a professor in the mathematics department. The panel of speakers was presented by Anton Ford, an assistant professor in the philosophy department and officer in the AAUP advocacy forum. The discussion was moderated by Agatha Slupek, a graduate student in the political science department and a representative from GSU. 

The forum was convened to allow graduate students a chance to talk with faculty about graduate student unionization. 

The discussion commenced with a commentary by Professor Getachew on her experience as a graduate student at Yale; the conversation centered on the ways in which a graduate student union would be able to promote diversity and equity. 

In her discussion, Getachew reflected on a question she faced during her time as a graduate student: “Why should I spend my political time organizing graduate students at Yale, who are predominantly white and wealthy, in a city that was largely black and poor?” 

In answering this question, Getachew emphasized that she was able to advocate for her particular beliefs by means of the unionization effort. 

“I realized that the union was a way for me to fight for the things I cared about—a way to fight for racial and gender equity. A union…is legally understood as a community of interests, and what I came to realize was that the content of that community, and the nature of that interest, is not determined in advance, but is made and re-made through difficult conversations with colleagues and comrades,” Getachew said. 

Professor Hirschfeldt focused his time on addressing the public image of unions, especially when considered historically through the lens of the labor movement. He asked that people keep in mind the positive benefits garnered by the labor movement that are enjoyed by all—many of which were “bitterly resisted” by those in management positions. 

He also signaled out a prevalent sentiment that is damaging to the pursuit of a proper discourse on unionization: “The assumption that unions necessarily operate in opposition to management.” For Hirschfeldt, this assumption seems unfounded, for despite the labor movement’s traditional opposition toward those in managerial positions, graduate students and administration are presumably working toward the same end. 

“A graduate student union would be made up of people who are as deeply committed to the academy, and to this university in particular, as our faculty, staff, and administration,” Hirschfeldt said. 

Hirschfeldt also spoke in regards to the administration’s fear that a graduate student union would “bring a third party into the picture—people unacquainted with the way we do things in the academy.”  

“There is already a third party that is very powerful and made up largely of people who are coming from the outside, whose values are not the same and are often quite directly in conflict with those of the academy—and that is made up of the Board of Trustees and our donors. That is not to say that graduate students and faculty should necessarily be in opposition, but we should be in conversation with them,” Hirschfeldt said. 

Hirschfeldt was followed by guest speaker Corey Robin, who began his presentation with an anecdote about his own experience in opposition to a graduate student union at Yale. He claimed to have fought graduate student unionization in the name of academic freedom and to have later joined for the same reason. This determination was made after administration began implementing, what he saw to be “unfair, unseemly, and un-academic” policies, including one that mandated that all PhD students graduate in six years—no exceptions. 

Robin went on to speak about the corporatization of top universities in the United States, drawing particular attention to the unified language and standardized responses on the graduate student unionization FAQ web pages at ColumbiaYale, and the University of Chicago. Similar FAQ web pages exist at Harvard and Princeton

“Even when the very poignant statement is to defend the vital particularity and idiosyncrasy of the university in question, the statement is just a cookie cutter replica of what's being said at every other university,” Robin said. 

Robin also criticized the University’s line that a graduate student union would place onerous rules upon the student body. 

“Your pay, your health care, the whole material and often non-material infrastructure of your life as a graduate student is governed by rules. With or without a union, there are going to be rules, and they are going to be binding on you. But what the deans at Columbia and the deans at Chicago are unwittingly telling you is this: with a union you will have a say in the formulation, adoption, interpretation, and execution of those rules. That’s the difference,” Robin said. 

Robin’s final advice to the audience was to continue the discussion on the graduate student union: “Don’t give up on people. When I arrived at Yale, I was the last person who would join a union. I didn’t like them, and they didn’t like me. But they didn’t give up on me, and I didn’t give up on them.”

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