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. AFSCME only applies to public sector unions). And given UE consumes 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.
You claim to support the free association of labor but still recite the most overused, facile, and fallacious anti-union talking points. Your claim that graduate students cannot be both students and employees reads like it was taken directly from a University administration meeting. But at least administrators would approach their nonsensical claims with some civility. You, however, resort to insulting the University’s graduate students in the most juvenile ways, while also trying to infantilize them. I’m not sure how GSU is harming you, but what I am sure of is that increasing graduate student compensation, which already constitutes an almost negligible fraction of the University’s budget, can only be beneficial to the graduate student experience and to the community as a whole. As you pointed out, these are our TAs, sometimes our instructors, and ensuring their financial security can only improve the quality of their teaching and make the undergraduate experience better.
Also, it’s helpful to actually get to know a group of people before you completely bash them online. You argue that no one forces graduate students to attend graduate school here. The same can (and has been) said of many jobs, so once more I must question how supportive you actually are of organized labor. But let’s continue. You say they are students, not employees. Well, you admitted in your article that you understand that graduate students often serve as TAs. Teaching assistantships are employment positions. What they do is labor. How one could contest that is beyond me, but we’ll keep going. Oftentimes graduate students are also teaching their own courses, running lab sections, discussion sections, and conducting substantial amounts of research for the University. Their instruction and scholarship is vital to the University, and the idea that these contributions should be compensated less because of their status as “students” is utterly ridiculous.
Additionally, I really believe you are misunderstanding the point of a doctoral degree. One of the main draws of graduate programs is the pre-professional and pedagogical training implemented into each program. All of the University’s departments, for instance, advertise career workshops and colloquia as integral parts of their programs. Graduate students are encouraged to apply here because of the excellent opportunities they have for work experience. Yet, somehow the idea developed that that work experience shouldn’t be considered “real” work, and thus shouldn’t be compensated as if it were “real” work. There’s really no point in illustrating the absurdity of that notion. Many graduate students are conducting as much research and teaching as tenured professors. Just because they are also taking classes themselves and receiving guidance when conducting their research should in no way devalue their contributions.
And also, we should tackle your snide comments about their incomes. I have to assume you live an immensely privileged life if you don’t understand that, yes, a $33,000 yearly income in the city of Chicago is an incredibly poor compensation, especially when living in an expensive neighborhood like Hyde Park. No, it’s not below the official poverty line in Illinois, but that doesn’t mean the quality of life on $33,000 a year is pleasant. Especially considering the amount of time and stress graduate students devote to their programs. If you genuinely think graduate students should be happy to receive those meager earnings, I once more have to question how truly supportive you are of organized labor.
Finally, you say graduate students could suffer because of unionization. This is one of the most tiresome points, as it ignores the purpose of collective bargaining. GSU will not make a decision that would actually worsen their circumstances. They will not sacrifice their benefits or healthcare. You argue that the University investing more in graduate students could prevent them from investing in other things like community employment or academics. That is not a problem of GSU. That is a problem of a University having an $11 billion endowment and refusing to commit an extra cent of it to anything other than expanding the endowment further. Your attack should be aimed at our greedy, billionaire university, not the vulnerable graduate students trying to improve their conditions of employment. Again, I cannot accept that you are actually supportive of the free association of labor if you would sooner side with a multi-billion-dollar institution over its clearly struggling workers.
bro clearly forgot to pay attention during hum writing seminars 💀 maybe take some time to learn to write lmao