This article is in part a response to Agnes Callard’s column, “Persuade or Be Persuaded,” which discussed the recent labor action at the University of Chicago, in which hundreds of graduate students withheld their labor for three days and picketed dozens of buildings. It comes from a rank-and-file organizer who has walked the pickets for thirty hours in these last days and it also comes from someone who has spent the last decade or so of his life doing philosophy and, like Callard, very much affirms the Socratic ideal of examining one’s life for oneself.
Agnes Callard’s column raises a question. During this week’s labor action at the University of Chicago, Callard crossed picket lines to teach her classes, and she asks whether she did right by doing so. Then on Thursday, after the action ended, she held an event to debate this question with students and faculty. There are over eight hundred people on Twitter, and not a few of my colleagues, who think the question is ludicrous, a kind of high-brow trolling coming from an attention-seeking scab. They think good faith cannot be presumed here and no debate is possible. I want to acknowledge, however, that it takes a certain courage to out yourself as a strike-breaker and put your position up for discussion.
Second, there can be value in debate even where the other party does not argue in good faith for at least two reasons. Where the debate is public, it can help onlookers who are on the fence about the issue. Most importantly, spelling out what we think is right, justifying our convictions, is addressed as much to others as to ourselves. We might only rarely be able to change an opponent’s mind in a debate. But if we want to remain justifiably convinced of the rationality of our own convictions it is essential that we have replies ready to their challenges. Presuming good faith, I take myself to be addressing the three parties equally here: those who oppose the action, those who are undecided about it, and those who support it.
To cut to the chase, Callard has, as far as I can see, one central argument against the action. She writes:
I’ve been called upon by the union to cancel class to accommodate the strike. But, as I see it, that would amount to using educational harms to undergraduates as an instrument to achieve graduate students’ ends. Such an action seems immoral to me, for reasons articulated by Immanuel Kant: you are not allowed to use people merely as a means.
Did the grad students throw the undergrads under the bus, immorally instrumentalizing them for their own ends? The challenge has an empirical and a normative dimension, and my answer will try to address both. Empirically, the undergrads overwhelmingly supported the action and—the normative part—they did so with good reasons. They were not simply collectively deluded about their interests or confused in their sense of what is right.
A good place to begin is by pointing out that every teaching grad student who went out on the pickets and withheld their labor had a conversation about this with their students before and often several conversations over the course of the last year. I have done several teach-ins myself, in various departments, in lecture halls and seminars, to tell undergrads about our cause. I have not encountered a single undergrad who did not show understanding and sympathy for it, often even enthusiasm.
Hundreds of undergrads have signed our . I have been on the picket lines ten hours a day for all three days. On every picket I have walked, undergrads walked with us. On every picket I have walked, undergrads brought food to the protesters, cookies they baked themselves sometimes and water when the sun was burning hot on Wednesday. Undergrads gave speeches in support of our cause at our lunch rallies alongside politicians and activists from all over Chicago. They wrote op-eds in the campus newspaper, and in support. They emailed their administrators in support. They to our strike support fund. Their unions and activist organizations have their solidarity with us.
Is this evidence anecdotal? Admittedly, I do not have a statistic about the total share of GSU support among undergrads. Dissenting voices have made themselves heard, too. But there is an argument to be made that structurally grad students are in a good position to know where the undergrads stand. Two of my colleagues who picketed with me were Resident Heads in undergrad dorms. They have lived side by side with their students, sat through mental-health crises with them, accompanied them to the ER, laughed together in the dining hall. Is it at all surprising to see those undergrads turn out to the picket lines for the people who have been there for them? How many undergrads do our top-level administrators know personally, I wonder?
A philosophically minded person might counter that, sure, the undergrads supported you, but were they right to do so? Socrates thought the Athenians were wrong about all kinds of things. The response, in essence, is that the grad students’ working conditions are the undergrads’ learning conditions. An improvement to one is an improvement to the other and fighting to improve one is fighting to improve the other. When we ask the university to invest in its grad students, we ask it to invest in its teachers. Our undergrads understand that our interests are fundamentally aligned. GSU would not have gone forward with this action if we had not known that the undergrads had our back. They are not being instrumentalized; they are with us—and they know why they are.
What was the meaning of the labor action and what is the meaning of GSU on this campus? Callard has opened herself up to very personal critique, and I do not want to shirk from it either, so allow me some more personal reflections. When I arrived in Chicago last September to begin graduate study, the overwhelming feeling was gratitude. I get to study at a world-class institution following in the footsteps of some of the teachers and scholars I most admire. People will pay me to do what I love! At the very start of my career, I made as much money as my parents started to make only quite late in theirs.
I had moved to the United States from continental Europe and had grown up in Austria, where collective bargaining is standard and, despite it all, the welfare state is still fairly robust, compared to here. Even conservatives in Austria agree that universal health care, for example, is just part of civilization, not a communist plot. So, the things the union asked for seemed only reasonable and, new in town, I was glad to join a cause. Over the following months, I became more involved. I handed out flyers on campus, learned how to organize. I went to labs all over campus, to buildings I might not have otherwise set a foot into for my entire time here. I made friends in every division of the university, listened to people’s struggles in their workplaces, and helped people see that they are not alone in their fights. I learned to be a marshal at rallies, keeping parades on track and marchers safe from cars and, in recent days, I learned how to drum and chant and lead a picket, giving voice to righteous anger without hatred; how to keep one’s humor light and the energy up when you’re walking ten hours, come rain, come shine.
Like Callard, I also asked myself at times whether I was not wrong about some things. Do I not bite the hand that feeds me? Was causing a stir imprudent and, worse, ungrateful? Socrates, of course, embodied that problem. He caused a stir until the Athenians put him to death. He claimed that all his criticism was, in truth, the expression of a profound loyalty to the Athenian community. He insisted that he was doing them a favor when he relentlessly criticized their views. I would claim the same for my dissent. The University of Chicago is great, and some things about it could be even greater. Smiling and agreeing to disagree will not make things better. Here, I am in complete agreement with Callard. There might be a disagreement about means between us. As far as I know, Socrates never organized to improve the material conditions and institutional shape of life in Athens. He talked to people. If I read Callard right, she thinks that Socratic conversation and protesting—speaking and acting—are two fundamentally different things and the latter an inferior mode of settling political questions, perhaps an inadmissible one in the case at hand.
I think that politics is inseparable from both speech and action. Yet there is a more profound question here. Athens might have been a highly exclusionary political community, pushing slaves, women and foreigners to the margins, but there is no doubt that it was a political community where people came together to act for and deliberate about the common good. But is a university a political community in this sense, even in principle? Two alternatives seem to present themselves.
The first objection would be that it is not a political community because it is a business. Thoroughly corporatized, it often seems that, indeed, the only words and deeds—and interests—that matter are those of a few top-level administrators and some billionaires on our board of trustees. Some have suggested, moreover, that GSU’s efforts to get grad students recognized as workers would push this corporatization further. The administration sometimes suggests that recognition of this work as work would harm faculty-student relations. The truth is that GSU did not make up the fact that grad students do unionizable work (most centrally, but not exclusively, teaching)—we’re already doing that work. The idea that somehow such recognition would prevent faculty from seeing their students as anything more than soulless, teaching robots is absurd. Human beings can be workers and students at the same time. At UChicago, they already are; they are just not being recognized as both.
The other objection is that universities are neither businesses nor political communities but a third species of institution dedicated to the life of the mind. Why would its members want to engage in tiresome politics? Why not outsource the decision-making to a class of experts so that faculty and students can do their teaching and research in peace? There is no problem in principle with delegating a lot of the day-to-day management to administrators, but to transfer all strategic decision-making power to the experts is to condemn oneself to an unfree existence. That cannot be consistently willed. Of course, politics need not be an end in itself. We do not ask that it is. GSU merely wants all those who share in the institution to shape together, as free and equals, the material and institutional conditions in which the life of the mind can flourish. This, I propose, is the meaning of GSU. Nothing could be more citizenly. Every time a group comes together to make their deeds and words matter, chanting “Our university too!,” this dream manifests, one step at a time, into reality.
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