December 11, 2018

Surveilling Its Own Students

The admin rarely engages with grad students. So why are they keeping tabs on GSU organizers’ social media accounts?

The life of a graduate student worker is not unlike that of any other worker. We do work; we receive paychecks; we pay our bills. However, at the University of Chicago, sometimes that sequence does not occur in the appropriate order. Sometimes we do work; we wait for our paychecks; the bills become due; we wait for our paychecks some more; and, in the meantime, the bills continue piling up, with the pay we are owed notably and confusingly absent.

This past quarter I became one of the more than 40 percent of graduate workers who report having received their pay late. My position as a workshop coordinator required me to begin planning and contacting presenters on behalf of the workshop sometime in July, during the summer quarter. However, I was informed by administrators at the Council on Advanced Studies, which helps administer the workshops, that my quarterly paycheck for this position wouldn’t be distributed until the first week of the fall quarter, and made my budgetary considerations accordingly. Imagine my frustration when that pay did not arrive on time.

In anticipation of the Graduate Students United (GSU) walkout being held on October 18, I tweeted: “I’m two weeks late getting paid for some of my work this quarter…can’t wait to walk out with @uchicagogsu tomorrow!” GSU retweeted it from its own account as an example of why graduate workers were participating in the walkout and rally. Late pay and a lack of transparency or accountability in receiving payments are issues cited by many graduate workers across divisions at UChicago: As previously mentioned, GSU’s recent bargaining survey demonstrated that over 40 percent of respondents have reported receiving late pay, and, among those, over 60 percent reported receiving pay over three weeks late. My tweet was an example of a frustrating individual situation as well as an expression of solidarity with my many coworkers who have experienced similar problems and believe that unionization is the most effective solution.

The day after the walkout, in which hundreds of graduate workers participated, I received an email from Martina Munsters, dean of students in the Division of the Humanities. She informed me that she had learned that I had “concerns” about my pay, and asked to meet with me to discuss the issue and determine if she could do anything “to resolve the apparent problem.” I found this strange, as I had not reported my pay problem to anyone formally, I’d had no interactions with Munsters previously, and my impression was that these types of issues would not fall under her jurisdiction. The only way she could have discovered the problem would have been through my social media post, which I had explicitly tied to a call that UChicago bargain with our elected union.

But, something else bothered me. I post on Twitter regularly, about everything from my personal life to my academic work to my activism—but my profile only mentions that I study Latin American literature and doesn’t even include my last name. Knowing that I’m a UChicago Ph.D. student, one could then go to the departmental page of romance languages and literatures and scroll through to find the only Laura enrolled. My late pay may just have “come to the attention” of a high-ranking administrator, but my identity and contact information certainly did not—it had to be sought out.

I decided to consult my GSU departmental organizer to ask for advice. She found out that this was not the first time Munsters had gotten in touch with an individual to discuss a pay issue based on information gathered from a social media post. Aware that this was a pattern and uncomfortable with the idea of a one-on-one meeting, I decided to bring other GSU members with me. I wanted to relay that my personal issues with pay reflect structural issues that would be best dealt with by the University coming to the bargaining table, as the overwhelming majority of graduate workers have demanded for over a year.

When we met a couple of weeks ago, Munsters was surprised at meeting with a group of graduate workers. To her credit, she seated us in her office and listened as we detailed our pay problems and collective view that bargaining with GSU is the best way to address these systemic issues. However, the ensuing conversation was unsatisfying. Munsters pointed out that deans’ offices don’t handle paycheck distribution, but sometimes she can help fix problems that come to her attention; she noted our pay is “more complex” than her own and causes more difficulties; and she told us that discussions about unionization occur over her head. Later Munsters admitted that my case “was seen on social media” by a person who “was concerned and brought it to my attention,” something that “does happen from time to time.”

Ultimately, although her stated intention in meeting was to help resolve my problem, I got the sense that there was little she could have done and was not even the right person with whom to discuss my late pay. Moreover, I was struck by the inefficiency of such a process: Was contacting student workers individually as their problems happened to come to the attention of an administrator really the most effective way to deal with a widespread, systemic issue? Wouldn’t engaging in collective bargaining be a much better, more efficient way to solve this and many other common problems facing graduate workers?

My case, both in regard to my late pay and my interaction with the administration, is not unique. Independent of our meeting, I finally received my pay in week five, a full month later than anticipated. At best, this attempt by a high-level administrator to help me with a problem that came to her attention through the monitoring of my social media was intimidating, uncomfortable, and ultimately unsuccessful. At worst, it was a deliberate effort to surveil GSU members, undermine union-related activity, and discourage graduate workers from expressing themselves publicly. It would not be the first time that individual meetings with workers, ostensibly meant to help them resolve their issues, were used as a form of union-busting and silencing of their speech. In any case, it is long past time for the University administration to begin taking the problems of graduate workers seriously as a systemic issue. Rather than combing through our tweets in an attempt to grease the squeaky wheels, the UChicago administration should meet us at the bargaining table.

Laura Colaneri is a third-year graduate student in the Humanities Division.