Farce v. Fact in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association

By James Anderson

The outcome of a case being heard by the United States Supreme Court could determine the fate of organized labor.

With Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the Supreme Court will decide on two matters liable to impact the ability of unions to remain viable, capable of protecting workers’ rights.

Rebecca Friedrichs, described as “a dissident teacher in Southern California,” appears poised to continue a trend of severing the land of palm trees and exorbitant rental rates from its counter-cultural history with her legal affront on organized labor now being considered by the nine most influential justices in the US.

The Supreme Court justices must decide whether a decision from the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Ed. should be overruled, thereby invalidating public sector “agency shop” arrangements. Those arrangements are what currently permit the CTA and other unions to collect “fair share” fees from all employees at a unionized workplace whether or not those employees opt to become members of the union. Under the present system, no educators are forced to join a union, but all receive the benefits of union representation as required by law. Those opposed to paying additional dues and joining a union currently do not have to.

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Bargaining Contract Update

Your GAU bargaining team has been negotiating with the administration.  Thus far we have talked about:

  • Grad employment evaluations
  • Increasing vacation time for 12 month employs so GAs not from nearby can see their families (some international GAs go years at a time without seeing their families)
  • Discipline processes
  • Anti-discrimination language
  • Workload protections (including specifying that an increase in class size is an increase in work)

Of course the elephant in the room remains the lack of a state budget. Governor Rauner is doing his best to damage higher education and worker protection making national news from the New York Times and the Daily Show to name a few. SIU has still received no funding from Springfield this year and is paying its bills by spending down its reserves. “SIU covered the costs of the grants in the fall semester anticipating reimbursement when the state budget is settled, and the university will do the same in the spring.”¹ As such the administration has been unwilling to talk in terms of specifics about financial issues.


What can you do?


Show the University that you support GAUnited by becoming a member or department steward.


Attend a Bargaining Session.


If you would are interested in observing how the bargaining process works, please contact the union at gau.siuc@gmail.com and we will contact you about attending.


Contact your legislators!



From the President’s Desk

j-flowersIn my previous message, I said that my inaugural piece would likely be the last piece for the semester. Apparently I was incorrect: this aptly titled “year in review” will be my last piece prior to the close of the semester, so I ask a brief indulgence.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this year was extremely difficult, not just for GAUnited, but for SIUC as an institution. Between contract freezes, the elimination of GA lines, and the need for “belt tightening” across the University due to the ongoing budget situation, there is no one on this campus that the budget situation has not affected.

Fortunately, your union has been hard at work defending the rights of graduate student workers across the campus through advocating for graduate students to administrators, reminding them that the elimination of graduate student positions is not a solution to the university’s budget woes. And it has worked: the upper administration has heard the message loud and clear.

Specifically GAUnited has been instrumental in pushing the university to repeal its contract freeze, pushing the administration to continue to offer contracts to international GAs, and pressing our new interim chancellor to admit, publicly, that the elimination of GA positions is off the table as a solution to the current budget crisis.

GAU has also made significant headway in several long standing grievances over the course of this year. While specifics of the grievances, naturally, cannot be discussed, you may rest assured that your union is working hard towards a successful resolution that upholds and maintains your rights as graduate student workers.

Finally, GAU continues to work hard in bargaining your new contract, one which will provide expanded protections for all graduate students across the SIU System. Unfortunately, contract negotiations are a slow process, and it is one that is made more difficult by our current budgetary situation.

The above is but the silver lining to the cloud that the current budget situation has cast over our university. While GAU has made progress in defending your rights in this difficult situation, unless we see a resolution in the budget stalemate, GAU and the university itself may be placed in an even more difficult situation than it finds itself right now.

Further, while GAU has been able to advocate for the offering of contracts by the administration, and has been given assurances that the elimination of GA contracts is not the solution to this problem, GAU is unfortunately unable to prevent the university from eliminating the programs that provide some GAs with their employment. This is coupled with the uncertainty surrounding the release of state grant funds to projects and GAs dependent on them.

Thus, while GAU has managed to gain, and hold, some ground during these difficult times, there are still more difficulties ahead of us. And this is why we need you, our members. As we have seen at Mizzou and other campuses across the country, a united front of students can make incredible gains, and a united front of students supported by a union can do even more.

A union’s strength lies in its member body, more so in an active member body, and the more of your voices that we can make heard, the stronger your union will be. All of this is to say that we need the support of you, the members, if we are to succeed in defending your contract, in bargaining a new contract, and securing your rights as graduate student workers well into the next semester.

Without you, a union is nothing.

In solidarity,

Johnathan Flowers

Academic Freedom: A Reconsideration

By James Anderson

The concept of academic freedom contains a tension within it, mirroring the tension within society writ large. This essay will examine the conceptual and class divisions inherent in the concept. I will argue academic freedom has to be extended in such a way that breaks down these divides. To do so, it must not be a right reserved only for some within the increasingly hierarchized academy. It also cannot ignore the material effects and dearth of economic democracy, within and outside the university.

A recent proponent of a restrictive conception of academic freedom, Stanley Fish, argued higher education is valuable not because of any benefits it might have for the common good, but rather because of the pleasures it affords those within scholarly professions to engage in creative inquiry.[i] Were higher education subordinated to outside concerns, the “pleasures” derived from the exercise of free inquiry in the academy would be “unavailable or rendered secondary if higher education were regarded as the extension of another enterprise.”[ii]  Fish is right to refute the subjection of scholarly inquiry to external control. Fish argues, albeit implicitly, against instrumentalist scholarship and against alienating academic work. However, as Robert Post pointed out, Fish downplayed why traditional arguments for academic freedom were intended to protect against that instrumentalism and external coercion.[iii]  Predicated on the belief that scholars required a degree of autonomy from administrators and other authorities in order to produce knowledge valuable to society, traditional conceptions of academic freedom rested on the assumption that freedom (and in this way, separation) of academics from institutional and social coercion provided the space necessary to both realize the pleasurable pursuit of knowledge and to produce the new knowledge beneficial to society. Both the traditional argument and Fish’s formulation miss the mark. In trying to carve out and protect freedoms – and as far as Fish is concerned, pleasures – for some, without attending to conditions of un-freedom in the rest of society and even (or especially) in the university setting, advocates of academic freedom impregnated the concept with an indissoluble tension from its inception.

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Grad Students Should Expand the Spectrum of Debate

By James Anderson

In his contribution to the New York Times “Room for Debate” roundtable commentary addressing the question of whether unions are the best way for graduate-student workers and adjunct faculty to improve compensation and conditions, one debater cautioned against “generalizing.”

In his May 14 article, Peter McDonough, the interim general counsel at the American Council on Education, admitted unions “do play an important role at many colleges and universities,” but qualified because “generalizing about their place in education is impossible. Unions are not per se ‘bad’ or ‘good.’ Context matters. Educating students matters most.”

McDonough’s framing of the question matters too. In suggesting that generalizing about “the place of unions in education is impossible,” he neglects the shared institutional features that enable one to even reference “education” or “colleges and universities” to begin with.

“Context,” he also underscored, “matters,” to be sure. But what is the larger context within which universities are situated? Are there characteristics common across most – if not all –universities that impact graduate student employees?

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GAU visits Mizzou: Grads seek union protection

As you may know, GAU is not the only Graduate Assistant union in Illinois: GAs at all three University of Illinois campuses also enjoy union protection for their employment rights.  And now GAs in other states are looking to get protections as well.

Shortly before the start of this semester, Mizzou’s GAs received an email from the administration telling them that Mizzou would no longer be providing health insurance for GAs – and their insurance would end in THIRTEEN hours leaving GAs to scramble to find coverage.  As a result, GAs quickly organized and rallied against the administration and University President Tim Wolfe (who was later forced out following student protests against his failure to respond to increasing incidents of racial harassment on campus), demanding that the university reinstate their health care. Under the pressure of the united GAs, Mizzou quickly backed down.

The success of this united front of GAs against the administration led to a realization of the strength of collective action by the GAs to improve their working conditions. As a result, graduate students have formed the Coalition of Graduate Workers (CGW) to create a GA union for Mizzou grads.

To broaden their understanding of the benefits of unionization GAU President John Flowers, Grievance Officer Joon Kang and IEA staff member Bret Seferian were invited to Columbia Missouri to talk with Mizzou grads about their experiences with GA unions as the grads at Mizzou begin the process of forming their own union.  Joining them on the panel was the Vice-President of GAU at Florida State Martin Breme.

c36dfa7a-4f35-4f17-b74a-09f154227f69Roughly thirty curious GAs came out Thursday evening to attend the panel
which covered the legal authority of unions, the ability for unions to represent graduate students through the grievance process, and the way in which unions allow graduate students to engage the administration on a variety of issues without fear of intimidation.  Other topics included the way in which GAU’s contract guarantees GA representation on the hiring committees for administrators and GAU’s work in obtaining our new ACA compliant health insurance.

940db6b9-9d22-41b9-8f1f-86bcc642cbf4More specifically, the GAU panelists spoke on the ability to press the administration to give contracts to GAs during the current state budget crisis, especially for international GAs who might otherwise lose their visa status. Further, we explained how we are currently bargaining for increased vacation time for GAs on 12 month contracts, which would enable many international students to travel home.  Of particular interest to the grads at  was GAU’s success in slowing down increases in fees – which would cost us over $1,000 a year, or higher, without the contract

GAU’s representatives were not the only ones doing all the talking: the other panelists described some of the protections their unions offered them. For example, before Florida State’s union existed, GAs could apply for a LOTTERY to get a $500 per year subsidy for health insurance – a lottery where unlucky GAs received NO FUNDING.

While the benefits provided by GAU may all be familiar to you, they were eye opening to Mizzou grads, all of whom do not experience the same kinds of protections we enjoy.  When the panel opened for questions, one student asked whether having a union would give the administration cause to fire all GAs and replace them with adjuncts or prevent GAs from being instructor of record. Neither of these are the case, as GAs provide the overwhelming majority of in-class instruction on our campus and campuses around the world.

We also engaged questions concerning the confusion that comes with trying to organize with multiple groups working at cross purposes and GAs feeling that they did not have a voice in the direction of events.  We explained that the presence of a GA union would not cause any of these issues, and that the direction of a union was determined by its member body.

As the graduate students at Mizzou continue to push forwards their campaign for unionization, and demand the protections and rights that they deserve, GAU has agreed to remain in contact with them, and to stand in solidarity with the graduate students at Mizzou when they successfully form their union.

From the desk of the president

Happy Thanksgiving,

It is ironic that my inaugural column begins as the semester is ending for many of us, and for that I apologize. As president, it is critical that I maintain open lines of communication with our member body, not just through periodic e-mails, but in a more specific capacity. To that end, I intend for this column to be a regular feature of your GAU newsletter wherein I share updates, report our successes, our failures, and keep the member body informed of the many ways that your union is active in fighting for your rights as students and workers.

​So, in the interest of sharing our successes, I am pleased to report that many of you have begun to receive contracts for spring semester, ending weeks of uncertainty. This victory is the result of constant pressure placed on the administration by your union, both in public and behind closed doors, resulting in Interim Chancellor Colwell’s assurance that departments across the campus have been instructed to comply with the University’s “belt tightening” without resorting to the elimination of GA positions. For now, our contract and continued employment are relatively safe.

​Despite this victory, there still remain challenges on the horizon. Many RAs (research assistants) have contracts whose funding is based upon external grants. As such, some of these grants have been placed in jeopardy by the continuing budget impasse. In a normal budget year, the funds provided by these grants would “flow through” the university from the state, allowing contracts to be awarded to RAs. As the university is uncertain when, or if, the money from these grants will materialize, the university cannot commit to the projects that these grants would fund.
​The end result is not only the obstruction of projects vital to the university’s research mission, but an increasing uncertainty as to the continued livelihood of those graduate student affected by this situation.

In response, your union is actively seeking answers from the administration and Chancellor Colwell concerning as to when these contracts will be offered, as the administration is contractually obligated to inform all those covered by our collective bargaining agreement of their appointment for the next semester. This obligation is one of the many ways that your union helps maintain your livelihood here at SIUC.
​Rather than close on somewhat of a sour note, I would like to offer something hopeful. As you will no doubt read later in this newsletter, members of GAU’s executive committee travelled to the University of Missouri to meet with their Coalition of Graduate Workers and speak on a forum that provided insights into the benefits of unionization, benefits which we all enjoy. While I will leave the details of that meeting to the article later in this newsletter, I can say that the conversations I had with the graduate students at Mizzou give me hope that they will win their struggle for unionization and attain the rights that they deserve.

Finally, I would like to affirm that GAU will stand in solidarity with not only the struggle of our own members here at SIU, in whatever form it may take, but we will also stand in solidarity with the struggle of Mizzou’s GAs, and GAs across the country as they fight for their rights as workers, students, and members of our campus community. GAU will be here to protect your rights at the bargaining table, in arbitration, and whenever you need us.

In Solidarity,

Johnathan Flowers
President, Graduate Assistants United


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