University of Chicago: ” We hope all members of our community will take the time to look more deeply into the challenges and potential negative consequences of a union and participate in dialogue around these issues.”


University of Chicago.

To: Faculty and Graduate Students
From: Robert J. Zimmer and Daniel Diermeier
Re: NLRB Ruling on Student Assistants
Date: August 24, 2016

Yesterday, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that student teaching and research assistants at private universities have the right to unionize in their capacity as workers. For a number of months, the University of Chicago community has been engaged in active dialogue on this subject and its potential impact on the College, graduate students, faculty and the University as a whole. In light of the NLRB’s decision, it is more important than ever to reflect on the fundamental nature of education at UChicago, and the potential impact that graduate student unionization in particular could have on the University’s distinctive approach to research and education, including the relationship between graduate students and their faculty advisors.

It is the collective responsibility of students, faculty, staff and University leaders to ensure that the University of Chicago is a place where students can flourish. Central to the success of graduate students is the intellectual relationship between students and faculty, particularly between students and their advisors. These relationships reflect the University’s character as a place of intellectual openness and scholarly autonomy, where students and faculty constantly work together to push the boundaries of understanding. These formative and mutually advantageous collaborations often move in novel directions, across disciplinary lines and established responsibilities. Each student’s path reflects their own goals, interests, intellectual ambitions, and subject matter.

Ensuring that students are flourishing is not a simple or easy process. Ongoing attention is required to make sure programs are working well and adequately supporting students throughout their time at UChicago and beyond. Our graduate students already are active partners in identifying the elements of a successful education, and they have worked with the faculty, chairs, divisions, schools and the provost’s office to make many improvements. Bearing this progress in mind, and the fact that there is still more work to do, the fundamental question now is whether a graduate student labor union would advance or impede students’ overall educational goals.

While reasonable people can come to different conclusions on this point, it is vital that we maintain the special and individual nature of students’ educational experiences and opportunities for intellectual and professional growth. A graduate student labor union could impede such opportunities and, as a result, be detrimental to students’ education and preparation for future careers. It could also compromise the ability of faculty to mentor and support students on an individualized basis.

Students follow their own unique paths at the University in coordination with their faculty advisors and do so in a way that is quite different from the well-defined and important work of employees in skilled trades or clerical positions, where the University has had productive relationships with unions for many years. Unionization by its very nature will mean that a labor union, which may be unfamiliar with what is involved in developing outstanding scholars, will come between students and faculty to make crucial decisions on behalf of students. These decisions could range from which classes students teach, to how best to collaborate with scholars in other departments, to the steps students can take to further their long-term career development. Ceding the power to bargain over some or all of these decisions to a union, which by design focuses on the collective interests of members while they are in the union in the short-term, could make it more difficult for students to reach their individual educational goals.

Recent experiences demonstrate that efforts to enhance the graduate student experience are highly successful when graduate students, faculty, deans and the provost’s office work together directly. Dialogue among students and faculty has led to increased stipends under the Graduate Aid Initiative and increased remuneration for teaching, more support for students in the sciences, expansion of health insurance coverage, child care grants, and major investments in the Chicago Center for Teaching and UChicagoGRAD to help students with fellowships, pedagogical training, writing and presentation skills, and preparing for future careers. It is unclear whether a graduate student labor union would have achieved any of these outcomes.

Faculty and graduate students at the University of Chicago are not only engaged in scholarship, we are stewards of the legacy we have inherited. Together, we will help define the University’s future. If there is a union representation election here, students will have the opportunity to decide what course is best for their own education. We hope all members of our community will take the time to look more deeply into the challenges and potential negative consequences of a union and participate in dialogue around these issues.

14 thoughts on “University of Chicago: ” We hope all members of our community will take the time to look more deeply into the challenges and potential negative consequences of a union and participate in dialogue around these issues.”

  1. Dear Fred…

    I can just imagine the discussion within the University administration. “How dare the N.L.R.B. consider these people as citizens with rights! Graduate assistants have always been our captive workforce. If a union is formed, we may have to justify our treatment of them. We may even have to provide decent pay and benefits to these ungrateful serfs! It will cut into the money that is supposed go to us!”

    So how do they hide their true feelings? They write a letter congratulating themselves for this past exploitation. It is presented as if they were doing their graduate students a great favor rather then using them as forced labor to increase profits.

    Robert J. Zimmer and Daniel Diermeier write pretty words. Words about the sanctity of “academics”. They justify exploitation as education. Zimmer and Diermeier then claim these good intentions are being threatened by the N.L.R.B. decision. They enumerate the pittances offered to their academic serfs and imply that unionism will be a monster eating away at this “academic Garden of Eden”.

    Paternalistic, exploitative and delusional are words that come to my mind when reading this missive. Perhaps it is an appeal to a “Stockholm syndrome” that Zimmer and Diermeier hope resides within their “serfs”.

    Zimmer and Diermeier completely ignore student anger and frustration about how these graduate assistants have ruthlessly exploited. Maybe they just hope to create fear of unions. Who knows?

    I read somewhere that unions are created by bad management. That seems the case here. If things were as Zimmer and Diermeier claim, no one would be looking to join a union. You don’t see any dollars and cents attached to the “benefits” for a reason. It would only show how pitiful they are.

    To the University of Chicago:

    If I were a graduate student in your institution, I would take this letter an an insult. Here is an idea. Try treating these people as members of your community of scholars. Treat them as people who bring great benefit to your University. Stop treating them as captive labor.

    Try doing the right thing for a change.

  2. Translation of UC statement: “we have been screwing over the grad students forever and we like it that way, we don’t want any changes”.

  3. From the founders of free market nonsense. I think I will burn my degree if I can find it.BTW didn’t the adjuncts just join SEIU.I saw half the faculty are now adjuncts. Is that a world class institutions or a mistake on the lake.

  4. Half the faculty are adjuncts tells you all you need to know. Would the university be better served by combining multiple adjuncts and creating more full time tenure track positions? Of course there is always a need for adjuncts, but half the faculty, the dirty little secret of higher ed.

  5. “A graduate student labor union could impede such opportunities [to reach one’s academic goals] and, as a result, be detrimental to students’ education and preparation for future careers. It could also compromise the ability of faculty to mentor and support students on an individualized basis.”

    Where’s the proof of that assertion? How or why would unionization diminish one’s professional attitude or responsibility? Ohhhh…, so much bullshit! I’m beginning to believe that our society exists primarily on bullshit, even at an institution with a stellar academic reputation as the University of Chicago. Congratulations, Robert J. Zimmer and Daniel Diermeier, I must admit that your missive is bullshit with a flourish. Is that what the University of Chicago has taught you?

    Wait a minute!!! Didn’t Milton Friedman and his acolytes, the “Chicago Boys,” also produce and spread their influential, “free market,” economic bullshit that leads to what the author, Naomi Klein, has coined “disaster capitalism?” Zimmer and Diermeier, you’re not helping to elevate U. of C’s reputation.

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