June 2, 2019

College Students, Join the Picket Line

Undergraduate support is essential to this week’s GSU strike. Here are some ways to get involved.

Harper Library.

Jeremy Lindenfeld / The Chicago Maroon

Graduate Students United (GSU) will begin an industrial labor action this Monday with the aim of getting the University to recognize the union. The Maroon Editorial Board urges College students to aid GSU’s efforts in whatever way they can.

As students who are taught from day one by graduate students, undergraduates’ academic success and well-being are intimately bound up with proper working conditions—and administrators’ respect—for graduate students. Moreover, College students’ solidarity with GSU is an essential reflection of the monumental contributions graduate students make to undergraduate education.

There are several ways to show support:

1. Don’t cross a picket line, if you don’t have to. The exact locations of GSU picket lines will be announced Monday morning, but are likely to include academic buildings across the main quad.

Many faculty members have already signed a non-retaliation agreement pledging not to “track who is participating or is not participating in the industrial action.”

Whether or not your professor has signed the agreement, you can e-mail them, asking if they will accommodate your wish not to cross the picket line—either by moving class off-campus, or by allowing you to make up attendance with an assignment. (Students Organizing United with Labor at UChicago (SOUL) has posted a template e-mail, if you’re stuck on how to approach this.)

A note on skipping class: If your instructor is holding class in a picketed building, remember that they have a starkly different set of constraints and obligations than you, as a student, do. Your professor may not be able to hold a lecture off-campus (due to class size or another reason), or may feel they’ll disappoint or disadvantage students by canceling a lesson. Note too that non-tenure-track faculty are contractually precluded from canceling class in solidarity with the strike (though they can move it off-campus). All this is to say to College students that your calculation, in opting to skip class in solidarity, is very different from your professor’s in holding it. We urge you to consider how you can stay outside the picket line.

But all said and done, if you must attend class—if your grade depends on it, or if you can’t afford to miss crucial information before finals (and have no other recourse of getting it)—you can still support the strike in other ways.

2. Join the picket line. You can do this in your non-class hours; picket lines need continuous crowds to sustain them. SOUL is circulating a sign-up sheet with shifts from Monday through Wednesday; message the group to learn more. You can also offer to bring and distribute food to strikers.

Undergraduates’ physical presence on the picket line is vital, as administrators have threatened to retaliate against graduate students who participate in the action. Undergraduates—not facing the same threat of retaliation—are especially well-positioned to take an active role in demonstrations.

3. Continue to do your academic work. Some graduate instructors are asking students to continue e-mailing them with questions during the strike, as needed. If there’s a way to make your teacher or teaching assistant’s life slightly easier and avoid backlogging their work, do so.

4. Sign a petition. SOUL is circulating a petition to support GSU. If you know an alum, there is also a separate support form for alumni in solidarity with GSU.

5. Thank your graduate instructors. The strike is a reminder of all that graduate students do for undergraduates’ education. Send a personal note of support, or thank your teacher or TA in person.

6. Don’t snitch! Many, many people have said it—far more creatively than we can—but the point stands. If nothing else, do not e-mail your academic adviser when your TA or graduate instructor forgoes class to picket, as Dean of the College John Boyer suggested in his Thursday e-mail to undergraduates and their families. The University will know that a strike is ongoing without undergraduates telling them, and notifying administrators of which instructors are participating could provoke retaliation.

We don’t need to hash out the message’s more absurd implications (academic advisers are being asked to monitor response times on e-mails?) to note that Boyer’s e-mail shows how the administration is compromising its values in the service of union-busting.

Administrators have argued that GSU recognition would interfere with the student-teacher relationship between graduate students and their faculty advisors. A union could “infringe upon academic decision-making” and “compromise the ability of faculty to mentor and support students,” President Robert Zimmer and Provost Daniel Diermeier wrote in 2017.

But Boyer’s message to undergraduates (and their checkbook-wielding parents) undermines the same relationship between undergraduate and graduate students. Rather than encourage undergraduates to engage substantively with their graduate student instructors over the question of unionization, the administration has bypassed that relationship and tried to foreclose the possibility of dialogue between undergraduates and graduates about unionization by framing undergraduate interests in opposition to graduate interests.

7. E-mail administrators directly. An extension of the previous point: Why not voice your concerns directly to the administration? If you’re feeling bold, consider e-mailing Boyer himself and replying to his message. (GSU has provided an e-mail template as well.)

In early 2018, the Maroon Editorial Board argued that the eventual result of GSU’s recognition is inevitable in the long-term.

“Graduate students organized on this campus in a hostile legal environment for a decade,” we wrote then. “They will continue to do so. If all else fails, they will still be here when partisan control of the NLRB reverts, again giving graduate students access to the protections of federal labor law. Voluntary recognition is a sustainable, productive alternative to this predictable spiral; the University’s leaders need only seize it.”

We stand by this view today, and call on undergraduates to be part of making recognition a reality.

Editor’s Note: GSU voted on whether to authorize an industrial action, which is a broad legal category of labor organizing that includes, but is not limited to, strike action. The word “strike” was not in GSU’s ballot questions. In this editorial and in News reporting, however, The Maroon has used the word “strike” colloquially—that is, interchangeably with the term “industrial action.”