“More in sorrow than anger,” GTA Union Files Labor Charges Against University of Kansas Admin
— Last spring, the Graduate Teaching Assistants Coalition, AFT Local 6403, a union of over a thousand graduate teachers responsible for teaching almost half of all undergraduate courses at the University of Kansas, reached out to new Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer with a warm welcome and a frank review of the strained labor relations between GTAC workers and KU administrators. Their communication outlined the rights of union workers under Kansas state law and explicitly named the problem behaviors of KU administrators, including interference with union administration; intimidation and harassment of union workers; and an overall refusal of key administrators to recognize basic worker rights or KU’s signed union contract. Their message closed with hope for the future.
But in the months since Provost Bichelmeyer’s arrival at the University of Kansas, already strained relations have broken entirely, with KU administrators publicly forbidding chairs from speaking with their workers and threatening to fire union workers for meeting with their department chairs – a mandatory step of the grievance process written jointly by GTAC and KU and approved by the Board of Regents in 2018.
This escalation of hostilities from KU administrators has forced GTAC to file four charges (1, 2, 3, and 4) against the University of Kansas with the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB). PERB is responsible for ensuring public institutions like the University of Kansas follow state labor laws, and for holding those institutions accountable when they fail to do so. Under Governor Brownback, the appointments of Board members were allowed to expire without replacement and institutions like KU were left with years of no oversight or accountability towards the law. But KU administrators can no longer count on this absence to shield them from consequences, as Governor Kelley’s PERB achieved quorum in February and quickly began moving forward on and hearing cases, including two existing lawsuits from GTAC which KU administrators have been fighting since 2018.
President Neill Kennedy (she/her): “Last year, the senior administrator in KU’s HR department said that KU views union interactions as “inherently hostile”. So if you’re a group who wants to build a cooperative, respectful relationship and the other group wants nothing but oppositional engagements, where can you go with that? Nowhere, it feels like. That’s why we were so excited to have Barb Bichelmeyer on board. She represents an opportunity to finally work together to achieve the University our students deserve.”
Kennedy continued: “We’re seeing a range of illegal union-busting tactics, including disparaging our union, holding captive audience meetings, harassing union leaders, and making threats against union workers. We recently had an issue we could have resolved with a ten-minute Zoom call. Instead, KU administrators forbid the department chair from speaking to us and threatened to fire every graduate teacher who didn’t submit to in-person teaching demands. This is not only illegal as hell, but it contradicts the Provost’s promise to respect our rights as workers to choose our own level of risk. I just keep thinking – does Barb know about this? And how does any of this help our students?”
Grievance Chair Hannah Bailey (she/her): “When I came to KU, I was told graduate teachers are paid less than a living wage because University finances are so tight. But if that’s true, why are KU administrators choosing to spend so much money fighting us? Who is really making these decisions? And why are they so afraid of us?”
Political Chair Patrick Gauding (he/him): “What’s frustrating is that KU administrators continue to fight us on even very simple issues, ones that are easy to resolve – and because KU administration is so opaque, we can’t tell who is driving this anti-worker agenda. Is Provost Bichelmeyer making these decisions on the bad advice of bad administrators? Are some administrators just following policies put into place before Provost Bichelmeyer’s appointment? And what program or service is going to be cut to pay for this?”
Bailey continued: “This is more than just a disagreement between workers and management. Many workers experience abuse and wage theft at our University. Our grievance procedure resolves these situations without forcing us to resort to lawsuits or direct action. Why do KU administrators want to get rid of the mechanism that stops abusive behavior? Behavior that goes against every principle at the heart of our University – if a student behaved this way, they’d be expelled. If a worker behaved this way, they’d be terminated.”
Gauding continued: “We’ve asked PERB to order KU administrators to stop overstepping their authority, to include GTAC representatives in planning meetings, things like that. Of course, KU must reverse the terminations and threats, and reassign the one department chair who agreed to cooperate with this illegal behavior. But fighting these lawsuits will be expensive, on top of what KU has already spent fighting us over the last two years.”
Kennedy continued: “Ultimately, we believe KU works better when we work together, and we stand ready to work with Provost Bichelmeyer to fulfill our shared mission at the University of Kansas. Although we have filed these charges against our University, we do so with the hope that we can use this process to help establish a future in which KU administrators choose to partner with us, and to partner with all faculty and adjunct workers, all staff and support workers, and all other graduate workers to truly create the University we all deserve.”