Graduate student workers at the University of Chicago have launched a carding campaign to unionize.
On Sept. 27, the first day of classes at the university, more than 100 students and members of Graduate Students United (GSU) gathered midday in the campus quad for a rally kicking off the campaign and to reiterate their chief contract demands: A living wage, expanded health benefits, equitable lab policies, transparency in the U. of C.’s budget and more financial and legal aid for international student workers.
“Grad workers know the first day of classes is just another day, because grad workers at the University of Chicago never stop working,” said Michael Stablein, Jr., a GSU member and a Ph.D. student in English, Theatre and Performance Studies, to the crowd. “Grad workers here also know this university works because we do.”
Last month, GSU members voted near-unanimously to affiliate with the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE). Now, with the UE behind them, GSU is organizing a carding campaign in which students sign union cards authorizing UE to represent them in collective bargaining. If more than 50% of eligible student workers sign cards — a process known as card check or “majority sign-up” — the union can demand voluntary recognition from the university. Without a majority, GSU needs at least 30% of student workers to sign cards to petition for a ballot election with the National Labor Relations Board.
(As it currently stands in U.S. labor law, however, should an employer refuse to recognize the union even when a majority of cards have been signed, they can — and often do — still force workers to also conduct an NLRB election.)
At Tuesday’s rally, Stablein said GSU had a goal of signing more than 900 cards during the first week; after the first day, the union reports, more than 1,000 graduate workers had signed cards.
The total number of graduate students eligible for union representation remains undetermined. Overall there are more than 10,000 total graduate students at the U. of C., which includes professional students, Ph.D. and masters students.
GSU estimates that the workforce eligible to join a bargaining unit is about 3,000 student workers — primarily Ph.D.s — across the biological, physical and social sciences, as well as in the humanities, social work and business programs. GSU also welcomes masters students to sign union cards, “since they also do work for this university and deserve to be part of the union and receive things like a living wage and comprehensive benefits,” said Laura Colaneri, a media representative for GSU.
During their last campaign in 2017, when GSU successfully won an election through the NLRB to unionize with the American Federation of Teachers, more than 2,200 graduate workers were represented. (The election was appealed by the university in 2018 and, in the face of an unfavorable legal landscape, GSU subsequently withdrew their NLRB petition, ending the campaign.)
In a statement from the administration last month, U. of C. spokesperson Jeremy Manier wrote: “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.” There is no indication that this sentiment has changed.
Despite an administration historically reluctant to bargain with graduate workers, spirits were high during the demonstration. A handful of GSU members walked the perimeter of the crowd, inviting students to watch the rally or, for those eligible, to sign cards.
Additional speakers who outlined the union’s platform included: Andrew Seber, a Ph.D. student in History; Yue Deng, a Ph.D. student in Geophysical Sciences; Valay Agarawal, a Ph.D. student in Chemistry; and Rebeca Velasquez, a Ph.D. student in English.
Outside of GSU, members of Faculty Forward, the university’s union of non-tenured, and the nurses union (National Nurses United) at the University of Chicago Medical Center spoke in support of the campaign. Several graduate student workers from Northwestern University, who also began a union campaign with UE this summer, also showed up in solidarity. Following the demonstration, several GSU members from the Biological Sciences Division led lab walkthroughs, taking their organizing into the workplace.
The demonstration’s final speaker was newly elected UE president Carl Rosen, who welcomed GSU into the union and commended their renewed fight for better wages and conditions.
“If you’re going to help make the university live up to its promise, you have to help be part of the struggle to make sure there’s nobody on this campus that isn’t paid a living wage and lifting people up,” said Rosen. “It’s also a social and racial justice issue… If we're going to bring a wider variety of the American people into higher education, you've got to pay them living wages and have people who can sustain themselves.”
"Since 2007, but especially over the past few months, we have seen a huge influx of walking through labs, walking through buildings, gathering (workers) together and organizing meetings in their departments. We need more and more and more of that," concluded Stablien. "If you are here, and you are fired up and you want these changes now... Start organizing in your departments, start reaching out to your coworkers and building the collective power to get the changes we need now at this university."