In an article published in The Maroon on June 1, Natalia Pavlou argued that the unionization drive by Graduate Students United (GSU) is an appropriation of real oppression (“Graduate Students Are Not Oppressed”). In her article, she defended the claim that graduate student workers’ agitation for a union is unnecessary, as graduate workers are not sufficiently oppressed to need a union. The motivating idea for this op-ed appears to be that, if you’re already well-off, demanding more is unbecoming and “appropriative” of real oppression. That idea is maybe fair in general, and extremely irrelevant in the particular case of GSU. At worst, it is a clever trick meant to distract from the reasons why graduate workers would want a union. Namely, workers are not bargaining on equal footing with the University, and a union is the simplest and most efficient way to restore parity to negotiations. Basic economic intuition can explain why graduate workers absolutely should unionize, and why they should go on strike if the University continues to refuse to recognize GSU. Whether conditions are good or bad is largely irrelevant to whether workers can bargain equally with their employer.
Before getting into the main point of this op-ed, I want to very briefly point out some of the more egregiously bad takes of the author. First, regardless of the amount of pay or waivers, one of GSU’s major points of concern is that the University often fails to pay on time. This is flagrantly abusive and can be the difference between paying rent and being evicted. Frequent complaints to the University have not fixed this unacceptable, repeated offense. Action, even based solely on this issue, is necessary. Second, on the topic of pay, Pavlou’s vaunted minimum pay package comes out to approximately $17 an hour. This is somewhat ridiculous, when a similar job like a private SAT tutorship can easily make double that number, and an LSAT tutorship can often make triple that or more. $17 an hour also barely covers the yearly costs of living in Chicago, and that’s if one’s employer deigns to actually pay on time. Subsistence wages (for skilled labor, no less!) are not grounds for workers to settle down and shut up. Third, Pavlou points to the ostensibly generous tuition waivers, despite the fact that you can neither eat nor live inside of tuition waivers. Fourth, she then mentions the insanely low compensation for University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) students, which meets barely half the cost of living in Chicago. To be blunt, worse conditions for UIC graduates just suggest that they should unionize so they can bargain more fairly with their administration. It is not an argument for UChicago graduates to quiet down. In short, these are nonsensical administration talking points.
However, I do not really want to belabor the point that Pavlou’s article presents misleading facts. My main argument is that all of these claims, right or wrong, are irrelevant. You should ignore Pavlou’s article entirely, because what it discusses has exactly zero bearing on whether a group of workers should unionize. The point of unionizing is not to improve working conditions if and only if conditions descend to coal-miner status. The point is to put the workers and the employer on even ground in their negotiations. GSU is not going on strike for improved conditions; it is going on strike for an equal negotiating space for workers.
Generally speaking, there is a major imbalance in the negotiations between a graduate worker and their university employer. For starters, the market of university employers is often not even remotely perfectly competitive, as graduate workers face high barriers to changing employers. If a graduate worker does not like their working conditions (or arrives to find out that the university regularly fails to pay on time), they have to apply to other programs, and then probably move across the country, uprooting their entire life. These are significant barriers to mobility—and there are more than just these examples—which seriously distort the labor market in favor of employers. Meanwhile, if the university loses a single graduate worker, it can generally move hours around or hire someone new with relative ease. A university losing a graduate worker causes much less disruption for the university than it does for graduate workers changing universities themselves.
As a result, graduate students are generally stuck negotiating individually with the university, and only the university. This is a deeply unequal situation. As the university can walk away from negotiations much more easily than a single graduate worker can, the bargaining space is set up to create a “race to the bottom.” Each individual worker is incentivized to lower their standards for what conditions they will accept, as they are competing with every other individual worker for scarce jobs. When all the workers are engaged in a race to the bottom, we should expect to see terrible conditions like those experienced by graduate workers at UIC in the long run. This bargaining space is designed to erode conditions over time, to the university’s benefit.
We should also expect to see workers unable to respond effectively to changing market conditions and collectively demand increased pay when, say, the rent goes up. The inability to negotiate collectively means workers bear all of the brunt of increased costs of living. In a perfect market, these costs would be, in part, passed on to the employer, as workers would be capable of seeking other options if an individual employer did not pay for part of the increasing costs of living. The lack of either a perfect market or a means of negotiating collectively in this case ensures that the university can stonewall each individual worker facing increased costs of living. This is one of the main factors that contributes to the aforementioned long-term erosion of working conditions.
So, the point of unionization is to rectify this imbalance in the bargaining space. Instead of thousands of individuals facing a single university, a single union is able to negotiate at parity with a single university. When the negotiation is at parity, we should expect to see pay and working conditions keep pace with living costs. If the university and the union negotiate one-on-one, each is equally capable of walking away from the bargaining table. As a result, workers can genuinely threaten the function of the university in the same way that the university can genuinely threaten the continued function of workers’ lives. This represents equality in a negotiation and does not unduly grant extra power to the university in its negotiations with its workers, resulting in the most economically efficient and fair outcome. As a small aside: The fact that graduate students can meaningfully threaten the function of the University by going on strike (as 2019 Class Representatives Brett Barbin and Bruce Li helpfully pointed out in their letter to the editor, “GSU: Striking May Negatively Affect Graduating Seniors”) strongly suggests that graduate students are workers who deserve an equal negotiation.
Notably, the quality of current working conditions does not play a role in the issues surrounding how current negotiations are set up. By arguing that the problem of poor working conditions does not exist, and thus graduate students should not try to unionize, Pavlou is attempting a cheap bait-and-switch. She would like you to think that unionization is something that should be prompted by coal miner–like working conditions, rather than an unfair bargaining position. They are presumably doing this because it is very hard to argue that individual graduate students are actually able to negotiate on an equal footing with the monolithic University administration. Meanwhile, it is very easy to throw up a confusing smokescreen of “tuition waivers!” and “others have it worse!” The endpoint is a shifting of the goalposts such that anyone who both advocates for changes to the status quo and is also not dying of black lung disease is silenced and delegitimized.
Obviously, this creates a sort of loop. As noted above, uneven bargaining spaces tend to erode working conditions. If one loses the privilege to an even bargaining space somewhere above “dying of black lung,” any gains in working conditions from an even bargaining space is an argument to make the playing field unfair all over again. The natural extension of Pavlou’s argument is to keep workers trapped in a cycle of barely making subsistence wages. When President Robert Zimmer is paid $3.2 million a year, one does not have to think hard about who stands to gain from permanent, minimal subsistence for graduate workers.
Davis Larkin is a fourth-year in the College.