Graduate Students United (GSU) held an industrial action and picketed buildings on campus this week, in an effort to gain voluntary University recognition. Though the University has not recognized the union, GSU members voted on Wednesday night to end the strike.
The industrial action began on early Monday morning and lasted through until Wednesday afternoon, drawing supporters from across campus, the city of Chicago, and beyond.
About 200 protesters with GSU, including union members, faculty, and undergraduates, gathered on the Midway at 8 a.m. to organize picket lines.
By 8:30 a.m., Cobb, Harper, Stuart, Eckhart, Ryerson, Pick, and Haskell Halls, and the School of Social Service Administration (SSA), were under picket.
By mid-morning, SSA was deserted, with only a handful of staff members left in the building.
Other buildings, including Saieh Hall for Economics—just steps away from heavily-picketed Eckhart Hall—were largely unaffected by the demonstrations.
All classrooms are empty at @UChicagoSSA, with just a few staff members and a receptionist in the otherwise deserted building.
Many protesters' signs were creatively themed around graduate students' work at the University. Ben Blanchard, a a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology program, researches ants and is the editor-in-chief of a blog on myrmecology. Several signs were written in letters composed of tiny ants.
"THEOREM: Our union is well-defined. Proof: graduate students = workers," another sign read.
PhD candidate in evolutionary biology Ben Blanchard holds a sign reading "We Are Workers," spelled in ants.
At 1 p.m., picket lines congregated in front of Levi Hall—the building that houses administrators, including the Office of the President—for a rally. Alderman Jeanette Taylor, 13th district of Illinois state senator Robert Peters, Illinois Federation of Teachers president Dan Montgomery, and Bea Lumpkin, longtime Chicago Communist Party USA activist, were among the speakers.
Bea Lumpkin, long time Chicago Communist Party USA activist, delivers a stirring speech to gathered crowd.
In midafternoon, the Bernie Sanders (A.B. ’64) campaign e-mailed Chicago-area supporters an invitation to rally with GSU on Wednesday. “After other Illinois graduate workers [picketed], their unions were recognized,” the e-mail reads. “Now UC graduate workers are doing the same.”
This isn’t Sanders’ first show of support for GSU: He sent a letter to the union ahead of their October 2017 vote, encouraging them in their “efforts to create a democratic workplace where your voice can really be heard,” and then wrote to President Zimmer a month later urging him to let the vote results stand.
Several local businesses and community institutions weighed in on the strike.
The food truck Mediterranean Express offered GSU members free sides and drinks.
First Unitarian Church on 57th and Woodlawn posted a sign in support of GSU and, like Sanctuary Cafe in University Church of Chicago next door, held several undergraduate classes for professors who moved class so that students wouldn’t have to cross picket lines.
Divinity School coffee shop Grounds of Being announced that it will be closed for the duration of the strike.
The entire Anthropology faculty issued a statement of solidarity on the Anthropology department website in the afternoon, and urged fellow faculty to join them.
On Tuesday, protesters were on the main quad again by 8:30 a.m., this time also picketing Hull Gate and other major arteries of campus traffic.
These are normally peak hours for classes in Cobb hall, but most classrooms are currently empty. As picketers march outside, a UCPD officer is stationed inside the main entrance to the building, surveiling them. pic.twitter.com/UgtqAzTiS4— The Chicago Maroon (@ChicagoMaroon) June 4, 2019
At a midday rally on Tuesday, protesters heard from more speakers.
English professor Elaine Hadley, a representative of the UChicago chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said the “enlistment of graduate labor [is] a cover for the reduction of tenure security,” adding that she “urge[s] faculty to take a moment to look at their roles in the larger corporate structure that has become UChicago.”
Another speaker at the rally was Anthony Jackson, a labor organizer with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union and one of 277 laid-off workers at the Chicago Nabisco plant. Jackson told gathered protesters that his support for GSU is in part due to the fact that Joseph Neubauer, chair of the University’s Board of Trustees, also serves on the Board of Directors of Mondelēz International, the parent company of Nabisco.
“In Neubauer, we have a common enemy,” Jackson told The Maroon after he spoke.
Throughout the day, the admissions office continued to hold tours for prospective students, even as graduate students picketed outside Rosenwald Hall, the building that houses admissions.
“Actually, it’s a little quieter on this quad!” a tour guide announces as she leads parents and prospective students into Hutch courtyard. pic.twitter.com/Y0Kx9ADNLG— The Chicago Maroon (@ChicagoMaroon) June 4, 2019
Some visitors were unfazed by the protests: At one point in the afternoon, three parents of prospective students joined GSU picket lines.
According to GSU organizers, the University’s response to the second day’s protests was more coordinated.
“The deans were reacting yesterday, but today they seemed to have more of an agenda. We were hearing the same sound bites [from intervening deans] over and over,” Natalia Piland, the general secretary of GSU and a Ph.D. student on the Committee of Evolutionary Biology, told The Maroon. Piland said that on Tuesday, deans repeatedly summoned University police officers to picket lines, involving campus police even as protesters demonstrated peacefully.
GSU continued their work stoppage Wednesday, holding pickets and rallies across campus. They began in the morning picketing buildings across the quad, including Harper Memorial Library, Levi Hall, Cobb Hall, and Ryerson Hall.
At 1 p.m., protestors gathered on the main quad, where speakers, including prominent politicians such as Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle and former state senator Daniel Biss, addressed the gathered crowd.
"Bob Zimmer...stop lying,” said former Illinois senator Daniel Biss. “And here’s why that’s important: We’re not a hedge fund. We’re not a manufacturing plant where the boss can do whatever to ratchet up production one perceent. We’re an institution of inquiry”
“The behavior that I object to most is not just that he doesn’t want you to have a union—the behavior that bothers me most is the dishonesty,” Biss continued.
Preckwinkle told the crowd, “I want to commend you and offer my congratulations for standing up for yourselves. If you don’t do it, who will?”
Incoming Student Government executive slate member third-year Kosi Achife also spoke: “Our livelihoods are collectively exploited by the administration and our struggles are intersectional... We [the incoming student government executive slate] demand recognition. Bargain now.”
GSU co-president Claudio Gonzalez also presented a packet of letters of support from other labor organizations, including the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the American Postal Workers Union, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 134.
At the end of the day, a crowd of over 400 GSU members and supporters paraded through the quad before converging in front of Levi Hall for a brief rally at 5 p.m. The rally, which was publicized by Bernie Sanders’s campaign listhost, featured several Bernie supporters wearing campaign merchandise. During the event, GSU organizers celebrated the previous three days of labor action, thanking undergraduates, faculty, and other labor organizations for their participation.
Afterward, GSU members departed for a members-only meeting at University Church, where they voted to end the industrial action. As of Wednesday night, the University has not recognized GSU as a union. Graduate students voted to unionize in October of 2017.
Adrián Mandeville, Matthew Lee, Caroline Kubzansky, Miles Burton, Oren Oppenheim, Elaine Chen, Deepti Sailappan, and Lee Harris contributed reporting.