Group of KU students plans to strike on Monday; administrators and union for graduate teaching assistants spar over planned protest

photo by: Journal-World File

Students walk along Jayhawk Boulevard, donning masks, on the University of Kansas campus on Aug. 24, 2020.

Many University of Kansas students are preparing to strike — not attend classes on Monday — and now that pending protest is enflaming already tense relations between KU administrators and the union that represents graduate teaching assistants.

KU on Saturday accused the union that represents over 1,000 KU graduate teaching assistants of “endorsing conduct that is illegal” and doing a “disservice to GTAs and to other KU students,” according to communications obtained by the Journal-World.

The accusations came one day after the union, the Graduate Teaching Assistants Coalition, issued a statement of solidarity with KU undergraduate students who are preparing a strike from classes Monday, which is Labor Day, to protest the continued opening of KU’s campus during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Members of the Jayhawker Liberation Front began publicizing the strike Thursday in tandem with a petition calling for the closure of KU’s campus due to the spread of the respiratory virus, free exit testing for all students, shelter for students in need, hazard pay for essential workers, and continuing to pay all employees an average of their current wages. The petition had nearly 400 signatures as of Saturday evening.

Julie Thornton, KU’s director of employee relations, told GTAC that its solidarity statement violated the memorandum of understanding between the university and the union. In an email obtained by the Journal-World, Thornton wrote that the union offered an “implicit endorsement” of the strike, which she phrased as an “illegal sick-out”.

GTAC’s statement Friday did offer support for any students and union members who participate in the strike from classes and said that union members would sign a petition associated with the strike. But it explicitly warned against withholding their labor in a “concerted action,” which would be considered a labor strike in violation of the agreement between the union and KU.

Thornton, though, accused GTAC of endorsing a sick-out, where employees would call in sick to work in a form of silent protest.

“…(It) is also a solicitation to your membership to engage in a violation of the MOA,” Thornton wrote. “Feigning illness to engage in an illegal strike does not comply with this contractual language.”

The Journal-World could find no record of the union ever encouraging its members to call in sick to work, even if they weren’t ill. The union, though, has said GTAs should not be disciplined if they don’t show up for work on Monday.

Partrick Gauding, GTAC’s negotiations chair and a PhD student in KU’s political science department, responded to Thornton’s message in an email Saturday evening, also obtained by the newspaper.

In his response, Gauding wrote that GTAC “did and will continue to publicly endorse the KU Labor Day Student Strike” and would vigorously defend any union member who faced discipline for actions related to the planned strike — for example if a GTA didn’t teach their planned class on Monday or didn’t mark absent students as such.

Gauding also said that Thornton’s email, which tacitly threatened GTAs who participate in Monday’s strike with their termination from KU, was a “clear attempt at prior restraint by a government entity,” as the university was threatening discipline for actions that haven’t yet taken place.

His response also took particular issue with Thornton’s assertion that GTAC was encouraging workers to call in sick to work as their form of protest. The union, Gauding said, hasn’t endorsed or mentioned a sick-out and the KU student organization leading Monday’s strike explicitly told participants to inform their professors they would be absent from class as part of a political demonstration.

“We would not ‘call out’ sick without being sick, especially during a time when so many people are genuinely ill,” Gauding wrote.

If KU were to try and fire a graduate teaching assistant over actions in Monday’s strike, GTAC would represent and defend them by demanding that KU show similar termination attempts for every worker that missed a day of work over the last five years — and if KU failed to provide evidence of a precedent for firing workers in similar situations, GTAC would file discrimination charges against the university, Gauding wrote.

There is also a clause in the agreement between KU and GTAC which requires a chain of command in terms of disciplining employees — or a progressive discipline clause. In other words, KU can’t seek the termination of a graduate teaching assistant without first providing job counseling, letters of disciplinary action, suspension and/or suspending the worker without pay.

According to Gauding’s response, if a KU graduate teaching assistant did refuse to mark students absent for participating in the strike, it would not be “withholding required work,” as Thornton claimed in her email.

In reality, he said, it would simply be a matter of the worker following the directions of their department, as most instructors set their own attendance policies — and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, KU has already directed instructors to deliver class content in a way that students can continue with the materials at any time. KU has also directed instructors not to deduct points or penalize students based on attendance.

Gauding concluded his response by saying Thornton’s email was the latest in a string of “troubling” actions by KU officials. He subtly referenced a past Journal-World article which detailed how KU for weeks claimed that a student survey showed an “overwhelming desire” to return to campus for the fall semester when it didn’t actually ask students whether they wanted to come back while the pandemic was still continuing.

He also referred to “illegal delays” from KU with regard to information requested by public interest organizations under the Kansas Open Record Act.

“Now we see what seems to be a rather problematic response to a very normal student action,” Gauding said. “Taken together, these activities are very troubling.”

In the “spirit of cooperation,” Gauding also offered to Thornton that GTAC could communicate with its workers that public workers can’t participate in a strike — or withholding of labor — and detail the possible disciplinary consequences for violating KU department absence policies. In return, Gauding said GTAC expected KU not to discipline a graduate teaching assistant for actions related to the undergraduate student strike.

Thornton had not responded to Gauding’s letter at the time of publication.

KU is holding classes Monday, Labor Day, due to a modified academic calendar because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Contact Conner Mitchell

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