Re: University Concerns about GTAC Communications

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Sat 9/5/2020 6:49 PM
From: Gauding, Patrick John
To: Julie A. Thornton
Cc: Rose Welch; Neill Kennedy; Rounds, Mike; Leitch, Michael
Subject: University Concerns about GTAC Communications

Dear Julie,

We appreciate your reaching out to us on this issue and are glad to see more open communication from KU. While neither Rose nor I is the person responsible for social media for email communications, we can certainly understand your concerns. We also agree that these are serious matters and want to respond to your concerns with the gravity they deserve. Please understand that we are committed to maintaining open lines of communication with you, your department, and our University.

Regarding GTAC endorsement of the KU Labor Day Student Strike: We can confirm that GTAC did and will continue to publicly endorse the KU Labor Day Student Strike and any future student actions which support the principles and mission of of our University. Our GTAs feel that, as teachers, we have a moral duty to protect and defend the well-being and rights of our students.  GTAC thereby must stand in solidarity with our students on this matter. The University’s allegation that a statement of support for our students constitutes “endors[ing] conduct that is illegal” neglects the fact that GTAC has not and cannot sign away individual or organizational First Amendment rights via a written memorandum. 

For the University to declare to us that encouraging the signing of a petition or referencing our duty to engage in statutorily mandated activity constitutes “conduct that is illegal and violates our MOA” is a clear attempt at prior restraint by a government entity.

Regarding the reference to defending GTAs: A “promise to defend disciplined GTAs” is not, in fact, a “legally reckless position” – it is statutorily mandated and the ethical obligation of GTAC towards our duty of fair representation. We can and will defend and protect all GTAs who face discipline from our University for individual participation in the KU Labor Day Student Strike.

Regarding a work stoppage: We agree that were GTAC to engage in a concerted work stoppage, such actions could be considered a strike and KU could attempt to discipline participating GTAs and/or bring charges against our union. However, in this instance, GTAC specifically and explicitly named concerted work stoppages as illegal action within our public communications and similar messages via internal communication channels. Moreover, planning a strike is not illegal – only the execution thereof, when unsuccessful. Threatening our workers for possible future actions, however, could be construed as prior restraint, which is illegal.

Regarding termination of GTAs: We must advise you that were KU to seek to terminate the employment of individual GTAs who engage in political expression by participating in the KU Labor Day Student Strike, we would be legally and morally bound to provide them both representation and a robust defense, which would include: 

  • an appeal of any discipline related to participation in a concerted work stoppage, based on an evidence-supported denial that a concerted work stoppage occurred, using the Friday email which endorses GTA support specifically by signing a petition, explicitly naming concerted work stoppages as illegal and warning of possible disciplinary consequences, along with other internal communications showing that the KU Labor Day Student Strike does not meet the defining tests of a concerted work stoppage by an employee organization, 
  • during the process of appeal, demanding that KU show similar termination attempts for every single worker who missed a day of work over the last five years, 
  • if, during the process of appeal, the University failed to show similar termination attempts for workers who miss a single day of work, filing charges against the University for discrimination, 
  • invoking through all channels the worker’s individual right to free expression under the First Amendment, 
  • holding the University accountable for violations of the worker’s individual right to free expression under the First Amendment, using this communication to show evidence of the prior restraint and usage of “chilling effect” tactics to suppress the free speech of union workers, and 
  • grieving the University’s violation of the progressive discipline clause of our Memorandum of Agreement in seeking the termination of GTAs prior to counseling, letters of disciplinary action, suspension, and/or suspension without pay. 

Regarding “calling out” as ill:  GTAC has neither endorsed nor even mentioned a “sick out” nor have we seen any individual or group advise or even mention “calling out” sick. The student organization leading this action specifically directed participants to communicate to the University exactly why they will not be in class – because they are participating in an act of political expression, and not because they are ill.  Please know that we are committed to our work as GTAs and as responsible members of our community. We would not “call out” sick without being sick, especially during a time when so many people are genuinely ill. Were any individual GTA to refuse to count students as absent for participating in this act of free expression, they would in fact be following instructions as articulated in our Memorandum because: 

  • most instructors set their own attendance policy, 
  • in most departments in which attendance policies are set at the departmental level, individual instructors are required to use their own judgement as to excusing absences,  
  • the University has directed instructional workers, including GTAs, to offer instruction in which a student can continue with course materials at any time, in any place thereby negating the entire concept of “missing” a class, 
  • the University has directed instructional workers, including GTAs, to refrain from deducting points based on attendance for the Fall 2020 semester or penalizing students for absences, and 
  • the Memorandum requires that we abide by all laws which supersede the Memorandum, and penalizing students for engaging in free political expression would be a violation of such a law.  

Regarding aspersions to our service:  Supporting our undergraduate students and defending our members from unfair and retaliatory discipline is the opposite of a disservice – it is exactly this type of service which is the moral and legal duty of our union. This is not the first time that the University has attacked our integrity or acted to damage our reputation with our members. Conversely, these University actions do a real disservice to GTAs, our students, and our University as a whole by placing the University in a position of liability under PEERA, and because these actions damage our ability to cooperatively engage in full communication as intended and required by law.

Regarding the nature of this action: We must say that we are troubled by having received this communication about a Covid-19 related student protest, when taken in context with other Covid-19 related University actions. We have seen the University make claims that were disproven by data, and yet continue to make those claims after public debunking. We have seen well-sourced analyses of Covid-19 infection and institutional planning data coming from (or failing to come from) our University that compares negatively with similar institutions. We have seen illegal delays in responses to information requests related to Covid-19 placed by multiple public interest organizations under the Kansas Open Records Act. Now we see what seems to be a rather problematic response to a very normal student action. Taken together, these activities are very troubling. We would appreciate it if you could communicate our concern to the appropriate parties within the University.

Finally, while we must reiterate that GTAC has not violated the law nor our Memorandum of Agreement, we are willing to make an accommodation towards your concerns, in the spirit of cooperation. Specifically, we could agree to send an email to our unit explaining that public workers cannot strike, with specific citations and links to our Memorandum and PEERA, as well as outline the possible disciplinary consequences of violating departmental absence policies. We could similarly post this message on our website, within our private communication channels, and in all places where our Friday email was published. In turn, the University would agree: 

  • to accept this as evidence that GTAC has not endorsed a work stoppage, 
  • that no GTA be disciplined for engaging in a concerted work stoppage in relation to this student strike, 
  • and that instead, if a department chair chose to seek discipline against a GTA who was absent from work during the KU Labor Day Student Strike, that such discipline be limited to the facts of the matter in regard to any possible breach of a departmental absence policy. 

We trust that our accommodation would satisfy the University on this matter. Please let us know as soon as possible so that our accommodation can be completed in a timely manner. 

Patrick Gauding
Legislative & Negotiations Chair
GTAC AFT-Ks Local 6403

Sat 9/5/2020 1:17 PM
From: Thornton, Julie A.
To: Kennedy, Neill Gabrielle; Rose Welch
Cc: Gauding, Patrick John; Rounds, Mike; Leitch, Michael
Subject: GTA communications 

Sent Via E-mail
Rose Welch, Business Agent
And Neill Kennedy, President
Graduate Teaching Assistants Coalition,
AFT Local 6403, American Federal of Teachers-Kansas
1300 S.W. Topeka Boulevard
Topeka, Kansas 66612-9921

Ms. Welch and Ms. Kennedy,

​I have received information that GTAC on Friday emailed  GTAs and publicly endorsed a student strike on Labor Day Monday and promised to defend GTAs who refuse to teach that day.  GTAC’s email endorses conduct that is illegal and violates our MOA.

First, the promise to defend disciplined GTAs is a legally reckless position to take, because it wrongly suggests a valid defense could be made if a GTA was disciplined for engaging in such an illegal strike.  That position is not supported under the law.  GTAs who participate in an illegal strike may be discharged from their employment.

​GTAC’s implicit endorsement of an illegal sick-out is also a solicitation to your membership to engage in a violation of the MOA.  The MOA provides in pertinent part that, “All absences from assigned classes must be submitted in advance for approval by the department (other than for illness or emergency situations, in which case the GTA must provide a written explanation to the supervisor) and arrangements must be made for the class to be covered in accordance with the departmental policies.”  Feigning illness to engage in an illegal strike does not comply with this contractual language.

GTAC’s statement also calls on GTAs to refuse to count students as absent if they engage in a strike.  That statement also asks your membership to violate the MOA by withholding required work, which also is an illegal work action.  Specifically, the MOA provides in pertinent part that, “GTAs shall perform duties in accordance with the instructions of supervisors, departments, and/or schools and in adherence to University and Board of Regents policies.”

Your statements do a disservice to GTAs and to other KU students.  We respectfully request that you commit to complying with the law and the MOA and ask that all GTAs teach their classes Monday as scheduled.

Julie A. Thornton
Director of Employee Relations
University of Kansas