Letter to Incoming President Alivisatos

Dear President Alivisatos,

Thank you for your invitation to contact you while you are transitioning from your current position to the Presidency of UChicago. We welcome you, and we write with some urgency about an ongoing pressure point in our community.

The issue of graduate student worker unionization has troubled the University for many years. In summer 2016 the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled to allow graduate students in private universities to unionize. During the following academic year, the Graduate Students United (GSU) at the University of Chicago, which had been organizing for nearly a decade, launched a union drive. Multiple attempts at dissuasion by senior University officials notwithstanding, a large number of graduate students turned in union cards. The expectation was that elections would be held at the end of Spring quarter 2017. Regrettably, the administration appealed to the NLRB in an attempt to prevent the vote, hiring a well-known anti-union law firm and presenting a list of implausible and at times ungrounded arguments as to why graduate student teachers and assistant teachers are “not employees.” The NLRB rejected the University’s arguments, recognized the graduate students as employees and ordered an election for Fall quarter of 2018. During the period leading up to the elections, the administration again made a concerted effort, using mass emails, publicity, and a special web-page, touted as “informational,” that only contained one-sided claims, to convince students to vote against unionization. So confident were they in the power of their arguments that they then also sent multiple emails encouraging the students to participate in the vote. Much to the administration’s dismay, over 1500 students participated in the election, 70% of whom voted in favor of a union. 

Instead of immediately recognizing the union, the administration appealed yet again to the NLRB, hoping that, once President Trump had appointed new members to the NLRB, it would reinstate the ruling against graduate student unionization. Fearing such a decision, especially considering the impact on unionization campaigns at other private universities, GSU withdrew its case before the NLRB. Since 2019 GSU has been campaigning for the University administration to recognize them voluntarily, as other private universities such as Harvard and Brown have chosen to do. Throughout this entire process University administration officials have refused to have any meetings with union representatives. 

In its desperate attempts to prevent unionization, the administration has chosen to fight it with tools that are antithetical to the core intellectual ideals of an academic institution. While repeatedly touting the Chicago Principles of Free Speech, which you have also foregrounded as integral to UChicago, the administration ignored the results of a democratic vote, and prevented any open discussion of the unionization question among administration, faculty, and students. This has caused serious damage to the reputation of the University outside and within its own community. (https://www.chicagomaroon.com/article/2020/1/30/UChicago-gsu/)  Whatever one’s opinion on the issue itself, the way in which it was handled by the administration created sharp dissonance to principles of free speech as well as principles of honest intellectual discourse. It has also been, frankly, a waste of precious resources, time, and energy at this critical moment in our institution’s history.

We have noted from your past statements how deeply attached you have been to Berkeley (e.g.https://www.dailycal.org/2017/09/11/paul-alivisatos-uc-berkeleys-new-provost-final-stop/) and to the justly high quality of education that UCB provides. In that sense, since graduate students at Berkeley are unionized, we infer–and are happy–that you feel unionized graduate students to be compatible with–and perhaps even helpful to–the highest standards of education. Indeed, the most recent social science literature published on the issue (Rogers et al., ILR Review 66 (2013; https://doi.org/10.1177/001979391306600208) suggests precisely the same conclusion. Thus, it seems that you will have good reason to join us in our support for graduate student worker unionization, once the NLRB changes its composition and our graduate student worker bargaining unit once again votes in favor.  

Indeed, it is to be expected that soon the new NLRB will reaffirm the right of graduate students to unionize. We believe that it is time to repair the effects of a confrontational  approach in past years, an approach that has left a bitter taste not only among the graduate student community, but among faculty as well, even among those whose own views about unionization are ambivalent but have been ashamed by the administration’s handling of the fair vote and its aftermath. Instead of waiting and repeating further cycles of appeals and costly legal proceedings that it is ultimately likely to lose, the University should voluntarily recognize our graduate student worker union, Graduate Students United. We can only imagine the good will this step would generate, and the improved morale that our students, and indeed all of us, would have after it.

As a first step, we request that you agree to meet with GSU representatives before the Fall to discuss their position and begin to give serious consideration to having the University honor the democratic voice of our graduate student workers and voluntarily grant GSU recognition. They can be contacted directly by writing to mailto:graduatestudentsunited@gmail.com.

see the list of signers