Once upon a time, an owl with wrinkly eyes and ragged feathers ran a small hunting school for the ruffed grouse in his forest. In his old age, the owl had become less apt to practical demonstration and put out a teaching assistant advertisement to the more senior grouse. In the consequent application process, it was decided that Hazel, a particularly sightly grouse, should assume the role. Despite some backlash from the opportunistic press, the owl assured the forest dwellers that he had appointed Hazel solely on her merit.
Hazel came from a privileged background. Just like all the other upper-crust grouse, her family loved to watch David Attenborough documentaries and play trivia. After all, only a select few could dedicate so much time to mastering the hunting graft before flying into the real world.
It was agreed that Hazel would receive food and nesting in compensation for her teaching duties (they hadn’t yet discovered Bitcoin). However, after just a few weeks of working with her, the owl—who had recently divorced—became enamored of Hazel. He grew more and more attached to her and began to shower her with more provisions. But Hazel soon grew unsatisfied and demanded more than what she was willing to provide in return.
Eventually, Hazel riled up an unruly mob of feather-headed grouse who felt pity for her claims. “I’m not being paid a living wage,” Hazel squawked. “It’s not tied to inflation.”
So, the owl began prioritizing Hazel’s demands over his responsibilities to the rest of the school. At first, the other grouse noticed fewer berries in their school lunches. Then, the owl cut the pay of the woodpeckers who maintained the tree where classes were taught. Eventually, he had to cut the number of students, causing an almighty debacle in the forest.
Despite all this, the feather-headed grouse kept demanding Hazel receive more. Of course, in their virtuous utopia, there were limitless resources for everyone.
Like Owls, Like UChicago
In 1980, the University of Chicago’s Harper Library hosted a debate on worker protection and unions featuring intellectual heavyweights Milton Friedman and Walter Williams. Thirty-nine years later, a stone’s throw from the very same place, a flock of graduate scallywags rallied for unionization in perhaps the worst insult to music since Cardi B. And a few weeks ago, the university confirmed that GSU-UE, the now-official union, will represent its corps of graduate students in negotiations concerning employment.
What’s more, each and every current and future graduate student, regardless of individual preference, will be stamped with membership and must pay dues (Janus v. AFSCMEonly applies to public sector unions). And given UEconsumes up to 90% of these dues, it seems like the money will end up far from home. Déjà vu?
I hesitate to present our graduate students’ current state of affairs. It’s the sort of thing that would warrant a place on Save the Children’s PR roster and ought to come with a trigger warning. Alas, here goes: Ph. D. students typically don’t pay tuition, and they receive external funding for health insurance and an annual stipend of $33,000 (rising to $37,000 next year) for their studies and research. The university spends on average half a million dollars per completed Ph. D.
The sweethearts. For anyone, being paid that much to study at a premier institution would be a tough gig. Especially when the workplace is a microaggression-plagued Luciferian cesspit with only male and female bathrooms and no coverage of gender-affirming healthcare.
The clue is in the name. Graduate students are here to study and are not employees. No one has coerced them into enrolling in UChicago’s graduate program—they could have chosen to go elsewhere or not be graduate students at all. Even then, Ph.D. students at the University are only required to “T.A.,” i.e., be a teaching assistant, for at most five quarters over the entire span of their program.
Of course, most of a T.A.’s time is spent reading through the dribble of half-wit undergraduates or sitting in the corner of a classroom in an outfit that’s the most ghastly mix between the closets of a teenage goth and a pensioner.
Those Ph. D.’s are, supposedly, the brightest minds of our generation. Indeed, it is a well-known fact that when Margaret Mead said, “[N]ever doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” she was referring directly to the graduate students at the University of Chicago.
So, Heaven forbid they leverage their high intellect to earn a few smackers on the side. I’ve heard tutoring, freelancing, and OnlyFans are the day’s lucrative vocations. . . though having encountered UChicago grad students before, I doubt they make much money from the latter.
With GSU-UE’s demands for a “living wage,” you’d think the school has condemned its members to poverty. That said, the trademark grad student Saturday night of subjecting oneself and a few chums to a $15 pitcher of American piss (Bud Light) at Jimmy’s (Hyde Park’s premier drinking establishment) while kitted out in full UChicago merch is something of a lowly squalor.
But the impacts of unionization extend beyond the grad students themselves. Their pay increased by 23% between 2011–2019, almost double the cumulative inflation rate, and is competitive with similar institutions and double that of others. It seems to me the most jejune of economic observations that, should grad students receive disproportionate pay raises (like having pay tied to inflation while the rest of us don’t), there will be impacts elsewhere in the university further downstream.
For example, salary hikes for graduate students might immediately reduce students’ insurance, stipends, and employment opportunities and the university’s capacity to provide jobs to the wider community and invest in other areas of study. Ultimately, pay boosts are likely to hurt the university’s ambition of making graduate studies more accessible, as fewer places will be available. Surprise, surprise: there is no free lunch.
Sadly, GSU-UE and their feather-headed supporters have the intellectual firepower of a chou farci and are oblivious to this.
For balance, I’ll make my final point a non-economic one. Universities are meant to be places for the unfettered and free exchange of ideas. In meddling in interactions between student and faculty, a union will bring a sterilizing third wheel to this most spry and individual of academic relationships.
The thing is, I’m an ardent supporter of freedom of association for labor. After Lech Wałęsa’s 1980 strike in Poland, I would go so far as to render any conservative or libertarian who doesn’t as either ignorant or brainless (and many can be). Yet this time, only we can be to blame for legitimizing arguments that will cause so much harm in return for the vanishingly little good that couldn’t be achieved absent the graduate-student union.
Despairingly, that would require us to look a little further than our own noses.
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.
Shubh Malde is a Chicago Thinker copy editor. Previously a member of the class of 2025 at the University of Chicago, he is currently on leave after founding Arda, a venture-backed startup that takes him everywhere from Silicon Valley to West Africa. Shubh is also a keen artist, podcast host, African free trade advocate, and lover of 1960s–80s music. He lives in London, has Kenyan heritage and Indian origin, and is reachable at @shubhmalde and firstname.lastname@example.org.