Calling for legal recognition

Attaining lawful status as a labor union would help Graduate Students United make progress on key issues.

By Andrew Yale

Earlier this month on May 2, Graduate Students United (GSU), the grad student employee labor union at the University of Chicago, quietly celebrated its fifth anniversary. Over these five years, GSU has built a grassroots movement on campus that has improved wages, benefits, and working conditions for grad employees across the University, whether one is a teaching assistant whose wages were doubled in fall 2008, a research assistant seeking a timely OB/GYN appointment, or a parent who is taking time off to care for a newborn.

As teaching and research assistants, and in myriad other ways, we provide services to the University in exchange for a wage. However, GSU’s advocacy has improved conditions for grad students whether or not they are employed by the university, and whether they are in the first year of a program or the 10th. The members of GSU have done this by acting as a union: talking about working life with fellow employees, signing member cards, paying $5 yearly dues, attending quarterly member meetings, volunteering on campaign committees, attending marches and rallies, and so forth. In doing so, U of C grad employees have joined an academic labor movement comprised of scores of recognized as well as unofficial grad employee, post-doc, and faculty labor unions around the U.S.—including those at Wisconsin, Yale, NYU, Berkeley, and Michigan—and internationally in universities across Canada, Australia, Brazil, and Israel. Make no mistake: GSU is already a labor union.

However, legal recognition as a union would mean something else entirely: having a real say in the terms of our employment. Grad employees would then negotiate contracts directly with our employer, the administration, in a process called collective bargaining. This prospect in part depends on a pending federal ruling that promises to define teaching and research assistants as employees with a legal right to unionize. Through its national “Grad Labor Counts” campaign, GSU continues to call for the case to be ruled on promptly. GSU has already achieved a great deal, but open, democratic negotiations, as evidenced by the experience of the 30 campuses around the country with recognized grad employee unions, would enable the union to accomplish much, much more.

Whether as a recognized collective bargaining agent or unofficial workplace advocate, graduate employee labor unions have a record of improving working conditions. When GSU was founded, teaching assistants at the U of C earned a truly dismal $1,500 per quarter. In large part because grad students organized, the provost was compelled to form a committee of administrators, faculty, and grad students (in which I took part) to study the issue. Subsequently, the Provost doubled T.A. pay to $3,000 and substantially increased the wages of all other salaried grad student instructors. On such committees, grad students can give their personal opinion, but are forbidden from talking with anyone outside the committee about the proceedings, and the ultimate decision-making power resides solely with the provost. These committees do not always turn out so well: For instance, there’s the outcome of the provost’s Advanced Residence tuition committee. After months of work by the committee and a report detailing dozens of recommendations (and GSU calling for, among other things, the elimination of such tuition entirely), the provost decided to implement just a handful of relatively minor changes, including a suspension of the 5 percent yearly increase.

Since the wage increase in 2008, GSU has won concessions from administrators on a number of fronts. In January of 2009, women were waiting as long as six months for OB/GYN appointments at the Student Care Center. GSU called for more prompt scheduling, and that same year Dean of Students Kim Goff-Crews announced new scheduling policies, resulting in shorter wait times. Last spring, GSU kicked off its child care campaign with four demands: affordable, on-campus child care; affordable health insurance for dependents; improvements to designated on-campus lactation rooms; and a stop-the-clock parental leave policy that ensures that new parents can care for their child while maintaining their health insurance, campus access, visa status, and student loan deferment. As a result of the campaign, administrators just this month announced a new policy that does everything GSU called for except stop the clock.

To put the child care issue in perspective, many other universities somehow find a way to actually provide affordable child care to student parents. At NYU and Yale, where there have long been strong, non-recognized grad employee labor unions, there are modest subsidies for child care. The recognized grad employee unions at the University of Michigan and in the University of California system have won bigger cash subsidies through grassroots campaigning and collective bargaining. Child care is just one of many issues that can be negotiated. The lesson here, in short, is that collective bargaining gives grad students a big boost in securing basic services in their workplace.

Even so, legal recognition is no panacea. The power of a union still resides in the active participation of its members, and their solidarity with other workers and members of the broader community. The struggle for affordable, on-campus child care and health care for dependents continues. And there are many other issues to tackle: the quality and cost of health care, the fact that grad student teachers have not had a raise in four years and do not even receive a yearly cost of living adjustment, the continuing burden of tuition and fees for advanced grad students (the subject of David Mihalyfy’s excellent recent Maroon op-ed), and teaching availability, to name a few.

Looking forward, it will be up to University of Chicago grad employees to decide for themselves whether to push for legal recognition as a union. As U of C spokesperson Jeremy Manier said in an April 2010 article in Inside Higher Ed, “The decision of whether to form a union [sic] belongs to the university’s graduate students. It would be premature for the university to take a stance on this issue before learning what the majority of graduate students wishes to do.” In the following month, in an online referendum and after discussions with five larger unions, GSU members overwhelmingly chose to jointly affiliate with the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors. We have already formed a union; we are already affiliated with larger unions. Now, it is for University of Chicago grad employees to decide whether to take the next step and face administration at the bargaining table.

Andrew Yale is a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department, writing instructor in the College, and founding member of GSU. The views expressed in this article are his own.