Graduate Student Employee Fired for Union Activism

I had intended to blog about this, but Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber beat me to it. The story goes like this: Jennifer Dibbern, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, was retaliated against for her union activism. It’s as simple as that.

Henry is more cautious in telling the story than I am, but having led a campaign for graduate student unionization at Yale, and having been retaliated against for my activism—experiences I wrote about here and here—I see all the tell-tale signs of retaliation.

In any event, Henry has lots of links to help you decide what went down at Michigan. And here are some more. Also check out Henry’s excellent follow-up post, in which he itemizes some of the arguments that are perennially trotted out against graduate student unionization. Reading these golden oldies, I feel like I’m watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island. I mean are we seriously still having this conversation?

If you want to take some action, write an email (sample text below) to any and all of the following university officials. Be civil, be polite, but be firm. Personal emails are always better.

Mary-Sue Coleman, President,
Philip Hanlon, Provost,
David Munson Jr., Dean of College of Engineering,

Sample Text:

Dear [ ],

I write to protest the illegal firing of GSRA Jennifer Dibbern for union organizing.  I demand justice for Ms. Dibbern and that the university stop intimidating GSRAs and commit to neutrality in any GSRA union election.


Update (February 7, 10 am)

Karl Steel points me to this informative comment over at the Crooked Timber thread. This paragraph is especially useful:

It may not be clear from the public statements and media coverage how outspoken an anti-union advocate Prof. Goldman is. She attended MERC meetings in Lansing (over an hour from Ann Arbor), as well as informational sessions, to keep tabs on the unionizing effort. She also spoke out against the union often inside her own lab. Although Prof. Goldman has a reputation for running a very intense lab, no other student was ever told (to my knowledge) to curtail other outside activities (such as participation in sports, or family obligations). The first allegations made by Prof. Goldman of specific failures were in the email linked above, dated August 8 (after having favorably reviewed Dibbern’s progress just two months earlier). Prof. Goldman fired Dibbern just three weeks later. If the issue were primarily Dibbern’s academic performance, why not follow the usual procedures, inform her of her failures, evaluate her responses, and walk through the appropriate procedures? While not an ironclad case, I believe the evidence – the timing, the failure to follow procedures, and Prof. Goldman’s outspoken anti-union stance – is together persuasive that Dibbern was fired for refusing to quit her union activities, not for her failures in the lab.


  1. ryan February 6, 2012 at 11:10 pm | #

    Here’s mine:

    Retaliation against union organizing violates free and rational academic discourse. It pollutes the air and dissuades further student investment in integral research academies. Without union efforts among faculty and graduate students, university administrations stifle academic and economic freedom, caving to administrative and private power. My name is Ryan Daley and I’m writing to voice a protest against the illegal firing of GSRA Jennifer Dibbern for union organizing. I ask for justice and subsequent reinstatement for Ms. Dibbern. In addition, I demand that the University of Michigan cease its intimidation of GSRAs and that instead, U. Michigan remain committed to neutrality in any GSRA union election.


  2. Dr. Richard Beck February 7, 2012 at 3:02 pm | #

    Dear Corey: thanks for all your great work! Dr. Richard Beck

  3. Jason Sweeney February 10, 2012 at 6:23 pm | #

    Damn, that whole Crooked Timber comment thread is depressing. Ivy Leaguer liberals have no defense against the right except to roll over and mewl for mercy. I guess that’s how we ended up here.

    • Marcus Nestor February 22, 2012 at 5:30 pm | #

      “The Left” in the Norhtern western Hemisphere. (the U.S., Europe, Canada) gave up on the problem. The Problem is capitalism. You can say “capitalism as we know it” or “predatory capitalism” or “capitalism as its practiced”, or whatever makes it sayable for you, but until that is universally aknowledged once again, then there will be no resistance to the pillaging and depredations. It will contimue to be all “mewling” and “begging for mercy”.
      Im not sure what the solution is. Some kind of mixed economy-salad, but the lettuce in that salad will have to be real, hard Socialism or we will not survive the world thats coming. We can, finally, try to live with each other in some seblance of respect, or we will anihalate ourselves. There is no other choice anymore.

  4. John Steinsvold February 12, 2012 at 11:18 pm | #

    An Alternative to Capitalism (if the people knew about it, they would demand it)

    Several decades ago, Margaret Thatcher claimed: “There is no alternative”. She was referring to capitalism. Today, this negative attitude still persists.

    I would like to offer an alternative to capitalism for the American people to consider. Please click on the following link. It will take you to an essay titled: “Home of the Brave?” which was published by the Athenaeum Library of Philosophy:

    John Steinsvold

    “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”
    ~ Albert Einstein

  5. George March 1, 2012 at 11:19 am | #

    Sadly for Jennifer Dibbern she is not fighting the university she is fighting supply and demand. Since universities can basically hire world wide she can be very easily replaced by someone equally, or more likely better, qualified from a country like China where whatever deal U of M offers will be considered attractive.

    For example there is no reason why teachers are paid as lavishly as they are except it is very hard to replace a teacher, even with a US citizen from another state. Also worth noting is that teachers are an important constituency in local US politics, I would be surprised if the typical U of M student is allowed to vote in local elections(they may vote in the place they came from but not at the university). The fact that nobody elected locally feels any heat on the issue means that in a democratic nation Ms Dibbern does not deserve to be in a union.

    Also mitigating against a union of graduate students is most graduate students will not cooperate as they are happy with their situation.

    Here’s a plan of action for you: A statewide ballot initiative that would allow ‘full time’ students the right to vote in the local elections of their campuses. My guess is getting signatures on the initiative will not be a problem. It might even win a statewide vote as undergraduate U of M students mostly can vote somewhere in Michigan.

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