ILLINOIS -- Billionaire philanthropist J.B. Pritzker who inherited much of his wealth gave a record $100 million donation to Northwestern University in 2015. A graduate student who teaches there says that gift should have come with conditions that the administration acknowledges the graduate student union.
"I live paycheck to paycheck because graduate stipends are barely sufficient to pay my rent, living expenses, and my student loans," says Jessica Creery, a Ph.D., candidate who says her medical research on epilepsy and Alzheimer's yielded five million dollars in grant money for the school.
When an accounting error interrupted her paycheck last fall, she says her life nearly went into a tailspin.
"When my rent check went through, my account was overdrawn and I have been behind because of fees and overage charges ever since," she said. "It didn't matter to them that they made my credit card payment get delayed. No one at the university had a solution, it was not their job. I believe a union would provide a safety net and advocacy in situations like mine."
Creery, who is supporting Daniel Biss in the Democratic primary race, criticized Pritzker for not publicly supporting the efforts of the Northwestern Union Graduate Workers -- a union group the school does not yet recognize in collective bargaining.
"[Pritzker]'s done nothing," she said. "He's against the unions."
In addition to sitting on the board, Pritzker's name adorns the Northwestern School of Law, his alma mater. The school has notoriously opposed unionization efforts. It also published a list of "basics" on the school website intended to persuade graduate students against joining the union.
The University of Chicago has ignored the results of the Graduate Students United vote last fall where graduate workers voted nearly three to one to unionize. The university hired a union-busting law firm to oppose their bargaining rights at the National Labor Relations Board, a panel featuring two new Trump administration appointees.
Claudio Gonzales is a third year Ph.D., student teaching mathematics at the University of Chicago. He challenged Pritzker to prove his support for unions by publicly pressuring school administrators to meet them at the bargaining table -- a move they can make voluntarily.
"If [Pritzker] can't commit to withholding donations so long as our administration refuses to recognize and bargain with GSU, with Graduate Students United, it's not clear to me at all that he'll stand with us once he's elected," he said. Gonzales referenced a recent decision by university donors to demand a $100 million donation refund, suggesting Pritzker should do the same.
"That would be incredible," Gonzales said. "That is what would get us to the bargaining table. Things like that, exerting power in a way that is real and not just saying ‘Oh, I stand by these graduate students.’ [Donors] have so much power over the way this institution functions. The university president would have no choice if these people were speaking out that way.”
Last Wednesday, Pritzker was asked how he has used his influence to expand or support unionization efforts at those schools.
Reporter: You name adorns the campuses at Northwestern and University of Chicago, you’re a donor there. How would you describe your clout on those campuses and how have you used that to support unions, because unionization efforts have been resisted on those two campuses? What would you say about those efforts?
Pritzker: Well, I don’t know about the University of Chicago because I have not been involved at all there. At Northwestern, I’m an alumnus of Northwestern Law School, I’m proud of my own work there and also of the work they do to train lawyers and much of the program that I supported at Northwestern was really aimed at the Center on Wrongful Convictions, at the um… and the organizations that are standing up for our immigrants…
Reporter: But on unionization there?
Pritzker: I have not at all been involved in that.
Reporter: It sounds like you haven’t with U of C either, but the GSU, which is the other branch there…
Pritzker I’m not involved at U of C.
Reporter: IFT [The Illinois Federation of Teachers] has been pushing that.
Pritzker: I haven’t been engaged.
Reporter: But would you support...
Pritzker: I support the graduate students in their effort to get what they deserve and their effort to unionize and collectively bargain, I support that across the state.
The Illinois Federation of Teachers supported GSU's push for collective bargaining. IFT's Executive Board members also voted in December to back Pritzker's run for governor, but the endorsement is far from unanimous. The 48-member vote upset some of the group's rank-and-file, including Graduate Employee Organization President Gus Wood who studies and teaches at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.
"There's been no commitment. There has been nothing to show that [Pritzker]... in fact, it's been the exact opposite. He's actually tried to hurt labor. And labor just endorsed him automatically. It was so disheartening for us," Wood said.
In a follow up email statement, Pritzker campaign spokeswoman Galia Slayen wrote, “J.B. stands firmly on the side of graduate students in their fight to unionize and has put forward real plans in this campaign to put Springfield back on the side of working families. That’s why J.B. is the only candidate endorsed by the IFT, IEA, statewide Illinois AFL-CIO, and over 30 individual unions and he looks forward to standing with them as governor to defend our labor movement and help workers in Illinois thrive.”
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