Union representing graduate teaching assistants accuses KU of labor law violations

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World File Photo

Strong Hall on the University of Kansas campus is shown on Sept. 13, 2018.

The Graduate Teaching Assistant Coalition is accusing the University of Kansas of violating several aspects of state labor law, alleging that KU forced graduate teaching assistants to work without pay, implemented changes without consulting the union and threatened nonrenewal of teaching positions for not teaching in person during the coming fall semester.

Those accusations were leveled in four complaints Friday by the Graduate Teaching Assistant Coalition, the union that represents the roughly 1,100 graduate teaching assistants at KU. The complaints were sent to the Kansas Public Employee Relations Board, which was established in 1971 and acts essentially as an intermediary in complaints lodged against public employers.

In a statement, GTAC said the charges were filed as a result of “already strained relations” between the union and KU that have “broken entirely” in recent months.

The complaints accuse KU of violating Kansas statutes that bar employers from interfering with the rights of employees to form a union, interfering in how that union operates, discriminating against employees who file complaints against the employer, failing to negotiate changes to work requirements in good faith and failing to recognize the rights of the union.

More specifically, the recent actions that prompted the complaints, according to the statement, were prompted by university administrators forbidding department chairs from speaking with workers who are part of GTAC and threatening to fire GTAC members for meeting with their department chairs.

“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,” GTAC president Neill Kennedy said.

“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,” Kennedy said.

Since the PERB works mostly as a mediator to resolve complaints, it typically does not issue monetary penalties against public employers that it finds did violate state labor laws. Instead, it often orders the employers to undergo training for everyone involved with labor relations to better understand the state’s rules and regulations as well as the contract in place for the union.

In the portion of the complaints where GTAC asks for relief — all of which are largely the same — the union asks that the PERB mandate paid training for all supervisors at KU involved in labor relations both now and after any changes to the union’s contract. It also asks for paid training on best practices for conflict resolution with current and future supervisors.

In addition, the requests for relief also ask for a PERB order for KU to give GTAC a notice of at least three weeks before implementing any changes that could affect them. The request also asks that KU not refer to graduate teaching assistants as “students” (the state of Kansas recognized graduate teaching assistants as workers in a 1992 ruling).

Finally, the complaint also asks that KU be required to post a notice of any determined violations on its websites, in a note to the KU community, in the entrance to every campus building and through a press release to area newspapers.

Patrick Gauding, the negotiations chair for GTAC and author of the complaints, said in a statement the attitude toward unions at KU has been frustrating for years.

“…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,” Gauding said. “Is Provost (Barbara 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?”

A KU spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday regarding the complaints.

It’s currently unclear how quickly the PERB could hold a hearing on the complaints and their allegations. GTAC still has several complaints pending against KU that were lodged with PERB in 2018 regarding similar accusations of procedure changes implemented without the union’s consent and threatening to fire workers for filing complaints when those changes were implemented.

The PERB had vacant positions for several years and couldn’t meet a quorum to hear complaints until Gov. Laura Kelly took office in Jan. 2019 and began appointing new members. GTAC’s 2018 complaints were scheduled to be heard in the spring of 2020 before being delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Contact Conner Mitchell

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