Professors Write in Support of Grad Student Unionization

Ongoing case might re-open prospect of unionization at private universities.

By Lorentz Hansen

Last weekend, the American Association of University Professors at the University of Chicago released a statement in support of the right of graduate students to unionize. The statement comes as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) reviews a petition that could re-open the possibility of graduate student unionization at private colleges.

The letter, posted on the chapter’s website, cited the AAUP Resolution on Graduate Employee Rights, published in 2004. The Resolution states, “graduate assistants, like other campus employees, should have the right to organize to bargain collectively.”

The letter goes on to request that faculty members stop holding departmental meetings with graduate students to discuss unionization. “Even when such meetings are cast as informational, the inherent power differential between faculty and graduate students can easily result in a coercive and silencing atmosphere, especially when those with official positions such as department chairs and directors of graduate studies are present.”

Peter Malonis, a first-year Ph.D. student in the Biological Sciences Division and organizing committee member for Graduate Students United (GSU), said faculty members have held multiple meetings with graduate students in recent months to discuss unionization. According to Malonis, these meetings have become more frequent since the non-tenure-track faculty members formed a union in December.

“While it is premature for the University to take a position on this topic, it is imperative that the campus fosters robust dialogue around these issues, especially among graduate students. The decision of whether or not to be represented by a union will ultimately be up to the students, and the University wants to ensure that they can make an informed decision. This is why administrators have attended meetings to discuss unionization at the request of the students who organized the meetings,” University spokesperson Jeremy Manier wrote in an e-mail.

“The University has had positive and productive relationships with nine staff unions on campus that have represented skilled trades, clerical employees, and police among others,” Manier added.

The letter concludes with a request that the University administration remain neutral and refrain from using University resources to fight the unionization effort. The letter asks the administration to make clear that they will not tolerate intimidation of or retaliation against any graduate student who wishes to unionize.

As of Wednesday, the letter had 88 signatures from UChicago professors.

The statement resembles a previous letter that the University’s AAUP Advocacy Chapter wrote in support of non-tenure-track faculty’s right to unionize, which was published in The Maroon in November. Harper-Schmidt Fellows and a group of 169 non-tenure track faculty members voted to unionize in December.

Last week, the University’s AAUP Advocacy Chapter hosted a panel with representatives from GSU, Teamsters Local 743, Fair Budget UChicago, Trauma Care Coalition, and Faculty Forward to discuss organizing efforts on campus and ways of negotiating with the University.

Currently, graduate students at private universities do not have the right to collectively bargain, so there is currently no recognized union representing graduate students at UChicago. In 2007 a cohort of graduate students formed GSU, and the group has since grown to hundreds of members. The organization describes itself as “a movement of graduate students organizing to improve work and study conditions at the University of Chicago.” GSU counts among its victories raises for lecturers and TAs, a promise for need-based childcare for Ph.D. students, and a freeze in Advanced Residency tuition hikes along its victories, according to its Facebook page.

According to Manier, the University has worked and continues to work with graduate students to enhance student life on campus. “Students and faculty have successfully advocated for positive change working directly with the administration, as is the case with the Graduate Student Parent Policy and childcare grants. With a newly revitalized Graduate Council, we look forward to continuing these types of conversations—an open dialogue between students and administration. While students involved in GSU have been in some of these conversations with the administration, they have been there as students (not as GSU representatives) along with many other students, faculty, and staff whose perspectives have influenced decisions,” Manier wrote in an email.

A case, brought before the NLRB by graduate students at Columbia University and United Auto Workers (GWC-UAW), will either reaffirm or overturn the NLRB’s 2004 Brown University decision, which ruled that graduate students at private universities who perform services in connection with their studies are students, not employees, and therefore do not have collective bargaining rights. If the NLRB overturns the Brown decision, graduate students at private institutions could once again unionize.

Interested parties now have until March 14 to submit responses to the submitted amicus briefs. The NLRB has not yet said when it will make a ruling on the case.