God and Mammon at Loyola

At Loyola University, graduate workers aren’t just fighting for better conditions. They’re challenging the neoliberalization of one of Chicago’s leading Catholic institutions.

President Dian Palmer of SEIU Local 73 speaks at a Loyola Graduate Workers Union rally on April 24, 2019. Photo: LUC Worker Coalition.

On Monday, April 15, as the Notre Dame Cathedral went ablaze in Paris, workers at one of Chicago’s foremost Catholic institutions asked to have their union recognized. More than sixty of them marched, from the lake shore, through one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, to Loyola University’s Lewis Towers. The towers, where the school’s highest decisions are made, are located several miles south of Loyola’s primary campus in Rogers Park. Those marching were seeking to ask — once again — to be met at the negotiating table by university president Jo Ann Rooney. When denied this opportunity yet again, the group peacefully blocked the towers’ entrance and made speeches before police arrested a handful who still refused to move.

Since 2016, the school has opposed the National Labor Relations Board’s decision that graduate workers can unionize, contending that graduate students and PhD candidates grading papers, doing research, and teaching their own courses are to be classified strictly as students, not workers. Once the area in front of the towers cleared, Thomas J. Regan, dean of the graduate school, approached an array of local news microphones to repeat the tired line that the school does negotiate in good faith — but only with workers, not students. This group, he maintained, was the latter.

This claim is a fragile one. Given Loyola’s tuition prices, how would the school explain to students and parents why it uses a group that isn’t ready for adequate compensation to serve as the backbone of its day-to-day teaching? There is an unbridgeable gap between Loyola’s claim to offer a quality education and the notion that the people providing that education are not qualified enough to sit at a table where they might speak practically about how they’re treated.

It is within this massive gap — the space where university executives limit professors’ pay, benefits, and overall wellbeing — that battles are being fought nationwide between the increasingly organized workers of higher education and their administrations. Loyola’s Worker Coalition is one of the many groups pushing back against the corporatization of higher learning institutions, daring to imagine a life beyond austerity. Locally, the Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Illinois-Chicago recently reached a solid new contract after a graduate worker strike that led to the cancellation of several hundred classes and an effective shut-down of the campus — a win that might embolden Loyola’s workers. Duke University, University of Pittsburgh, and Washington University in St. Louis are among the growing number of sites of similar struggles and occasional victories.

Alec Stubbs, a political philosophy PhD candidate who was one of those arrested at the Lewis Towers demonstration, has explained a litany of ways that graduate worker labor is exploited, and how conditions could be improved. One example is the way Loyola — like most schools — treats the summer. Many PhD candidates do not receive their (already quite small) stipend while school is out during this time of the year, creating a three-month income gap that’s difficult to fill. Schools could shave years from the overall PhD commitment by moving paid research time from the back-end of the process and into these summers, shortening the overall track to a degree and not even costing the university any more stipend money, in the long run.

But this, of course, is a plan based on the assumption that universities want to expedite their candidates’ progress or make their lives more manageable. The status quo of unpaid summers and seemingly needless extra years of PhD time is actually an essential strategy for extracting a maximum of undercompensated labor from workers.

By stretching out PhD obligations, universities save money by keeping discount professors around for roughly two extra years — all under the pretense that experience is a form of compensation. And at Loyola — located in a major city with a rising cost of living and paying an $18,000 yearly stipend with minimal benefits (the stipend is actually even smaller when annual, scarcely explained “student fees” are charged) — this means extending a phase of life marked by limited dignity.

At the Lewis Towers demonstration, members of the coalition told of declining many social plans because of cost and monthly panics about rent and bills after working sixty hours per week. “This would be good for recruitment of other candidates, and the overall quality of the program, too,” Stubbs explains. “It’s pretty hard to get people to move to Chicago for $18,000 a year.”

But Loyola’s Worker Coalition faces an especially uphill climb to the negotiating table as a private, Catholic institution. Federal legislation on private school workers organizing is much more onerous for labor than that for public schools. And there’s also the matter of religious authority. When graduate school dean Regan spoke to media after the demonstration, he wore a priest’s collar; despite the Church scandals for the last two decades, much is forgiven and forgotten in the face of that collar. This despite the fact that some of the issues forgotten are at the core of Church doctrine: Pope Francis is an avowed Jesuit who has spoken in support of labor unions, as well as other social justice principles that Loyola officially adheres to but has yet to honor in the case of its Workers Coalition.

Meanwhile, the school’s stance on campus expression has moved toward more ideologically confined territory. About a year ago, when comedian Hannibal Buress was hired to perform a set on campus, he was sent a lengthy email ahead of time telling him which topics not to breach during his performance. Buress brought this bit of censorship to the surface right away, having the email projected on stage while he spoke about child abuse in the Catholic church. His microphone was cut, the lights were turned on, and house music drowned the comedian out as students booed and were led out of the building.

In early 2016, the school nearly expelled several students for a political demonstration aimed at raising campus food-service worker pay to a living wage. Members of the administration called them into meetings and attempted to turn student government sentiment against them, threatening legal charges of harassment against the students. Video footage of the respectful, hardly disruptive event was used to push back on these intimidation techniques, but the instance helped show the administration’s colors.

The same week as the Lewis Towers demonstration, far more press was given to Loyola head basketball coach Porter Moser being offered a job at another school. (Moser, whose salary is not publicly disclosed, decided to stay at Loyola.)

The corporatization of higher education relies on the public paying more attention to the career path of a basketball coach than to the mechanisms of power running their school. The market has led Loyola’s administration — like those of many other universities — to believe their best course of action is to risk the school’s reputation by leaving the people who make it work in destitution, and suppressing their challenge to that status quo.