(Left to right) Laura Colaneri and Kit Ginzky present the motion for GSU to affiliate with UE at Hyde Park Union Church, 5600 S. Woodlawn Ave., on Thursday, August 25.

Graduate student workers at the University of Chicago have voted to affiliate with the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), reigniting a years-long effort to obtain a contract with the university.

A majority of active Graduate Students United members voted in a general membership meeting on Thursday evening, August 25, to join UE. According to the union, the vote count was “near-unanimous” among the more than 200 graduate students who attended via Zoom or in-person at Hyde Park Union Church, 5600 S. Woodlawn Ave.

The move comes during a national uptick in organizing among graduate student workers, with recent hard-fought contract gains—such as increased wages—at Columbia University and Harvard, as well as successful union elections at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Indiana University—both of which are affiliated with UE.

“GSU is thrilled to be joining a national union deeply committed to the principles of rank-and-file democracy and building worker power, and to be allying ourselves with other UE graduate worker union locals across the United States,” the union wrote in a Sept. 2 statement. 

Brianna Suslovic, a first year Ph.D. student in social work and a member of GSU’s steering and organizing committees, said GSU began ramping up efforts to recruit new members and organize in the last year. 

“In my department, there had not been a lot of activity among GSU people in the social work school, and I would say the same is true for other schools, like the Divinity School and a number of the biological and physical sciences,” said Suslovic. “Now all of those different areas have people that are fired up and organizing.”

 Suslovic said the union estimates that the graduate student workforce eligible to join a bargaining unit is about 3,000 people across the biological, physical and social sciences, as well as in the humanities, social work and business programs. (Overall there are more than 10,000 total graduate students at the U. of C., which includes professional, Ph.D. and masters students.) 

Active membership in the union, according to Suslovic, is “several hundred now, but it's growing pretty massively.” 

Graduate students workers haven’t been a part of a national union since members voted to leave the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in June 2020, following four years of unsuccessful attempts to get the AFT recognized as their collective bargaining representative by the university. They did, however, get close once. 

In October 2017, graduate students voted 1102-479  in a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) secret ballot election to unionize (voter turnout was about 70%). Four months later, the university appealed the election, arguing that graduate students should not be classified as workers. 

The NLRB’s political composition, along with its resulting rulings, tends to shift with presidential party changes, and the NLRB has frequently reversed itself on the issue of graduate student unionization in private institutions over the past two decades. GSU’s election took place on the precipice of another waffling that would once again declassify graduate student workers as employees. 

The 2016 Columbia decision from the Obama-era board recognized graduate students as employees entitled to unionize, though it stood to be reversed under the Trump administration. Unions fighting recognition campaigns against recalcitrant administrations, including GSU, withdrew their NLRB petitions in early 2018. (The rule was reversed anyway in 2019.)

Without legal backing, for the next two years GSU petitioned for direct recognition from the U. of C. administration. At every turn, the university refused. 

In the face of an unfavorable legal landscape, the AFT announced in January 2020 that it was ending its recognition campaign at the U. of C., and by early June of that year, GSU voted to leave AFT.

In a statement that year, representatives from GSU anticipated that a break from AFT would clear the way for the union to engage in more militant action, akin to their 2019 three-day recognition strike: “Rather than waiting for a favorable change in the composition of the NLRB, we will fight for better working conditions and union recognition through direct action.” 

 To this day, the lack of a contract with the university and student working conditions have seen little change, though the NLRB has since reversed course, once again granting student workers the right to collectively bargain. 

New organizing, demands

With the law now on their side, GSU has reignited its campaign for a contract that would increase wages, expand benefits, rewrite “inequitable” policies and make the university’s budget more transparent.

According to the union’s statement, these tenants are guiding GSU’s organizing and were largely born out of survey responses sent to “hundreds of graduate workers across academic divisions.”

Suslovic added that organizers also began conducting walkthroughs of biological and physical science laboratories this summer to connect with new members and get a clearer sense of STEM working conditions and concerns.

Chief among these concerns, Suslovic said, were a lack of consistent “workplace safety standards, and also policies that hold people accountable for bias and discrimination.” 

Beyond lab work, a concern across departments was what workers allege is a lack of living wage. 

 “A lot of graduate workers experience pretty extreme financial precarity. I know a number of graduate students who are on food stamps, for example,” said Suslovic, noting pay disparities across departments and schools.

This year, researchers at the Crown Family School of Social Work received an annual stipend of $33,000, or roughly $15.80 per hour. 

Across campus, graduate workers in the U. of C.’s Biological Sciences Division, which includes neuroscience, ecology and biochemistry researchers, received an annual stipend of $35,700, or roughly $17 per hour.

In contrast, the living wage in Chicago for a single adult is about $19 per hour, and $36 per hour for an adult with one child, according to the MIT living wage calculator.

In the statement, GSU member Kit Ginzky wrote that while workers are “proud to contribute our labor to the educational and research missions of a world-class university,” it comes at a cost to student workers in the midst of “skyrocketing costs-of-living” in Hyde Park and general inflation.

In a statement from the administration, U. of C. spokesperson Jeremy Manier wrote: “Graduate students are essential members of the University of Chicago’s intellectual community. In the last few years graduate students, faculty and staff at the University have worked together to transform the University’s support for graduate education. This has resulted in numerous improvements for graduate students.”

Improvements Manier listed include regular increases to Ph.D.stipends “with additional increases expected,” the opening of a graduate student lounge, covering health insurance premiums and canceling the $416 quarterly Student Services Fee. Manier noted that these improvements came out of  conversations with elected graduate representatives, university-wide committees and division-level advisory boards.

(Beginning in February 2021, GSU ran a year-long Student Services Fee refusal campaign, and hailed the administration’s cancellation of these fees in January of this year as an organizing victory.)

“The University will continue to engage with graduate students through many direct channels, which we strongly believe is better suited to our approach to graduate education than a collective bargaining agreement.”

Looking ahead, Suslovic said GSU is optimistic that the university may finally voluntarily recognize the union, though they’re prepared to once again take it all the way to an NLRB election. In the meantime, organizers continue to build support internally, and have begun accepting donations to fund at least one full-time staff UE organizer.

“Our main challenge, in the past and now, is being able to convince the university that our labor is compensated by them, and we are therefore workers who should be entitled to the rights and protections and living wage and comprehensive benefits and access to resources that a university with this degree of prestige and resources should be able to provide to us.”

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