GSU 2019

Graduate Students United protesters at the University of Chicago Main Quadrangle, 5811 E. 58th St., June 3, 2019

Members of Graduate Students United (GSU) at the University of Chicago voted earlier this month to leave the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the union it had been organizing with during a years-long campaign for recognition from the school. 

Representatives from GSU say that the departure from the AFT clears the way for the union to engage in more militant action — akin to last spring’s three-day strike — in its unionization fight with the U. of C.’s administration. 

“We are re-evaluating our organizing priorities and re-dedicating ourselves to the project of strategically organizing around and winning material gains on our campus and in our community,” the union wrote in a statement issued June 9. “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.”

As the statement suggests, the apparent futility of any effort to pursue legal recognition through the current National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was the main catalyst for the referendum. When a university administration won’t voluntarily recognize its graduate student union, the path to a union contract has historically run through the NLRB, and GSU’s unionization drive with the AFT was built around pursuing legal action through the board if it became necessary.

But the board’s political composition, along with its resulting rulings, tends to shift with presidential party changes. That means that the NLRB has frequently reversed itself on the issue of graduate student unionization over the past two decades. (At least at private universities — public school unions have been around since the 1970s.)  

The 2016 Columbia decision from the Obama-era board, which recognized graduate students as employees entitled to unionize, proved short-lived in practice. Facing the prospect of a reversal under the Trump administration, unions fighting recognition campaigns against recalcitrant administrations, including GSU, withdrew their NLRB petitions in early 2018. 

The board has forged ahead on its own, however, announcing a proposed rule change last September that would reverse the 2016 ruling. The rule is expected to be finalized soon, after a half-year period of public comment. 

In the face of an unfavorable legal landscape, the AFT announced this past January that it was ending its recognition campaign at the University of Chicago. The union presented GSU with two options: Join an affiliate program, AFT Academics, or become an independent local with AFT. The second possibility was too expensive (membership would cost about $17 per month for each member) and met with a “complete lack of interest from members,” according to the GSU referendum question

GSU members formed research groups to look into joining AFT Academics, as well as a third course of action — leaving the AFT altogether. GSU representatives said that a meeting about the affiliate program didn’t make it seem very enticing. 

“The main benefits that were advertised to us were the benefits on the website, which kind of parallel an AARP or AAA–type program. The (AFT rep) pointed out the Southwest flight discounts and the discounted access to a student budgeting website,” said Kit Ginzky, a doctoral student at the School of Service Administration and a member of GSU’s steering committee. “There’s nothing that this group could offer us in terms of what we need for our members, which is, like, legal representation for grievances.” 

Ginzky also said that grad students at other schools, such as Princeton, told them that joining AFT Academics sapped their unionization campaign of momentum. By a 9-to-1 margin, GSU members voted on June 3 to leave and go independent. 

“It’s been a privilege to help the University of Chicago grads build...grassroots power through collective action. The grads not only won material improvements, but also a formal recognition vote — by a margin of 2-to-1 — that the Chicago administration continues to shamefully ignore,” wrote AFT President Randi Weingarten in a statement to the Herald. “The Trump NLRB is about to issue a rule attacking their right to unionize, but grads across the country know that a union neither begins nor ends on a bureaucratic whim. We wish GSU well in our common fight to come.​"

Going forward, GSU’s goal is to try to shift the union’s resources towards the needs that members have. (A presentation from one research group noted that GSU had “ignored many grievance calls on campus because AFT has redirected our capacity to recognition work.”) To that end, the union formed a mutual aid committee during the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, which aims to support members who need help with childcare, food delivery, mental health support, and other needs. 

But perhaps the most significant feature of an independent GSU is its ability to adopt a more militant overall strategy of engagement with the U. of C. administration, emphasizing direct actions, strikes foremost among them, that the AFT reportedly discouraged.

Some private university administrations have voluntarily recognized student unions. In May, the union at Georgetown University, which is part of the AFT, signed an early deal. At Brown University — where current U. of C. President Robert J. Zimmer served as provost in 2004, when the NLRB ruled against unionization efforts at the school — the school finalized a contract with its graduate students last week. 

There is no indication, however, that the U. of C. will follow suit — hence the need, from GSU’s perspective, for strikes and other forms of direct action. 

“The AFT consistently tried to tamp down on any behavior that they viewed as too militant, too direct, too confrontational because they didn’t want to spend any money on us,” said Will Kong, a doctoral student in computer science and another member of the steering committee. “We know that it’s possible to basically improve material conditions for our members through direct action.”

After last year’s strike, for instance, Kong said that members returned to campus in the fall to find that some departments had given more benefits to students — his own stipend went up by about $300 a month. 

“The strike last spring really showed members, and it showed the campus what is possible when you engage in that sort of action. It showed the creativity and strength and breadth of our membership,” added Ginzky. “And this was an action undertaken under the auspices of a parent union that was not even supportive.” 

Becoming an independent union without a bargaining unit set by the NLRB might also allow GSU to expand its membership to include students at the professional schools, as well as those enrolled in master’s programs. “As an independent union we can actually include all graduate students who contribute labor to this university, even when students are just working in the classroom,” said Ginzky.

More importantly, a broad labor coalition may be necessary for a new battle shaping up over the university’s graduate student funding overhaul that it announced last October. The reforms guarantee funding for students in five divisions of the school through the duration of their program, a change Ginzky praised. “I was originally funded for five years, in a program that will take me at least six years, if not seven,” she said. “And now I know that I’ll be funded through my entire education, so that makes a significant difference.” 

But the overhaul also contains a number of other provisions — for instance, it caps the enrollment of graduate students for each department. In its fall announcement, then-Provost Daniel Diermeier wrote that “the model allows for variation across fields in time to degree and provides autonomy for departments to weigh the trade-off between entering cohort size and years in the program.” 

According to the GSU reps, the new cap has meant that some students are being encouraged to leave programs. “According to what we’ve been seeing and hearing from our members, departments and administrators of those departments are using this as an opportunity to eliminate students that they have long disliked, or just don’t see as fitting into a particular department,” said Kong. 

The change also shifts more of the burden of managing program sizes onto faculty, potentially souring the atmosphere within departments. 

“One of the really insidious ways in which this funding overhaul is going to reconstruct the university culture is that the disciplinary onus is taken from the divisional level and transferred to the individual faculty-student relationship,” said Ginzky. She said that in at least one instance, division administrators had asked faculty to identify “attrition targets” among its students. 

One important strategy to counteract that influence and build GSU’s power, Ginzky and Kong said, is working with other organizations on and around campus.  That means aligning with other labor unions on campus through the University of Chicago Labor Council, which formed last year, and community groups like those that make up the Community Benefits Agreement Coalition. 

“All these groups that have been actively fighting against the university’s gentrification and police force for years, I think we can bring in and enlarge our understanding of what labor struggles look like,” said Kong. “Under the previous conditions we were just working fighting for recognition for ourselves …. I don’t think the university wants to see what it looks like when we’re working in active coalition with these other organizations.” 

That, too, could open the door for an escalation of labor action — Ginzky noted that a representative from the nurses’ union at the U. of C. Medical Center said during a recent event that a general strike could happen this fall if labor groups oppose the university’s plans to reopen. 

“I think that we have to keep at the forefront, that we are an economic organization, and we are waging a proletarian labor struggle at the university. But as long as we keep that centered and at the forefront of our work, we can get really creative with our strategies,” she said. “I think in this new, independent context, the limitations of our union are only set by the limitations of our imagination."


Christian Belanger graduated from the University of Chicago in 2017. He has previously written for South Side Weekly, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Reader.

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