U of Chicago graduate workers get a union vote

William Underwood and Juliana Locke report on the years of organizing by University of Chicago graduate workers that led to a representation election.

Graduate employees rally for a union at the University of Chicago (Graduate Students United | Facebook)Graduate employees rally for a union at the University of Chicago (Graduate Students United | Facebook)

GRADUATE EMPLOYEES at the University of Chicago (U of C) are voting today and tomorrow for the recognition of their union, Graduate Students United (GSU).

The vote comes a year after the National Labor Relations Board ruled in a Columbia University case that students working at private colleges and universities are employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act--and is the culmination of 10 years of organizing work on campus and a yearlong card campaign for union recognition.

Facing sustained resistance from the university administration, its union-busting legal team at Proskauer Rose and its new allies in the Trump administration, U of C graduate workers hope to secure fair payment, better access to health care and a more equitable university.

GSU formed in the spring of 2007 when a small group of students came together in distress and outrage over the university's $50 million "Graduate Aid Initiative," a program designed to offer competitive packages to incoming students while ignoring the needs of current students, many of whom were struggling to afford basic expenses. The campaign focused GSU's work on fair funding, fair teaching conditions and better health insurance--motivations that continue to inspire our union's work today.

From its inception, GSU was forced to work without the benefit of legal recognition. Working closely with other campus and local groups, however, GSU secured gains such as pay raises for teaching assistants, improved health care for all students and stipends to cover workers' childcare.

GSU has also been involved in various political campaigns, including participation with Phoenix Survivors Alliance (a sexual assault victims' advocacy group), Black Youth Project 100, the campaign for a trauma center at the university-affiliated hospital, the R3 Coalition and a recent week of action for racial justice.

GSU has also spearheaded efforts to combat hate groups and manifestations of Trump's agenda on campus, maintaining an active database of all neo-Nazi posters on campus and offering legal aid to students affected by Trump's travel bans.

This commitment to solidarity stems from our belief that organizing at the university--particularly at a fiscally irresponsible corporate university that develops over neighboring communities, fails to provide for the well-being of its students or workers, and patrols its territory with one of the largest private police forces in the country--necessitates a broad political vision of what a democratically controlled university can and should look like.

As graduate student and course assistant Charlotte Heltai rightly notes:

This university is not only our employer; it is the largest employer on the South Side of Chicago. The actions of U of C have consequences for many people who do not live, work or study on its campus. A union like GSU, which has taken anti-racism and solidarity as pillars of its activism, being a recognized power block within, could be very important in broader battles against racism, policing and gentrification...The university is not going to better our quality of life if we do not have the power to force them to. Without a union, we have no power.

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OUR COMMITMENT to these ideals clashes with the university administration's efforts to fight the unionization campaign.

U of C officials have used every means at their disposal--including legal challenges, active misinformation campaigns, and more recent efforts to strike students from voting rolls, require IDs at polling places and restrict students by name to particular polling locations.

They have also consistently denigrated graduate employees and their work. During hearings held before the NLRB in May, for instance, now Executive Vice Provost David Nirenberg suggested that the work of teaching assistants is a burden to him.

"It doesn't help the faculty member because it's more work to make sure that the [graduate assistant] is grading in a way that is consistent and reflects what you're trying to communicate," Nirenberg said. "I would say that from my point of view, especially in a class of 19, having some grading is not a relief to me."

Zachary Fasman, legal counsel for the university, took aim at graduate students in the sciences while betraying a fundamental misunderstanding of the scientific method:

Their financial package which they receive is in no way dependent on how many hours they work or whether their experiments fail or succeed...most of their experiments fail. And what employer would employ people whose experiments constantly fail?

Such tactics are consistent with other private universities' union-busting efforts. At Yale, for instance, the university refused to negotiate with a legally certified graduate workers' union, leading to a hunger strike and protest at the university's commencement ceremonies in May.

Columbia University challenged the validity of a pro-union election result, and Harvard refused to provide a complete voter list for its graduate employees' election last November.

These strategies are specifically designed to drag out the unionization fight until new Trump appointees to the NLRB reverse the Columbia decision that granted graduate employees at private universities the right to unionize in the first place.

In other words, many university administrators who regard themselves as liberal leaders see the Trump White House as an anti-labor ally when it comes to handling their workforce.

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THE FIGHT for graduate workers unions is part of a larger struggle over the shape of universities in years to come.

In 2015, Trish Kahle and Michael Billeaux described in Jacobin how the fight for graduate worker unions to assessed higher education trends such as the adjunctification of teaching labor, the growth of central administrations through shared services initiatives, and increasing emphasis on marketable degrees:

The attacks on graduate students are part of a broader restructuring of the U.S. university system that has proceeded on a number of fronts: students are treated as "consumers" making an "investment;" declining state aid causes tuition to soar; universities increasingly push the pursuit of profitable research and the privatization of research as public funding dries up.

More broadly, university structures are increasingly corporatized--administrations act as profit-maximizers and are treated as high-paid corporate executives, while university workers are increasingly casualized.

In this situation, unions like Graduate Students United offer a compelling alternative vision. In organizing to demand recognition and representation, we hope to achieve a more democratic university where priority is given to quality education and the wellbeing of workers and students, rather than to the demands of profit.

A crucial step toward achieving that future can happen with today's vote.