AFL-CIO Lawyer Pushes Back Against Administration Line on Grad Student Unionization

A union would not come between graduate students and professors, the chief lawyer for America’s largest labor federation said.

By Jaehoon Ahn

The lawyer for America’s federation of labor organizations appeared on campus Wednesday in order to respond to the University administration’s arguments against graduate student unionization.

Craig Becker, General Counsel to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and previous member of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), was invited to speak on campus this Wednesday by the American Association of University Professors advocacy chapter at the University of Chicago in response to the recent University administration’s campaign to discourage graduate student unionization.

While the University administration sent out e-mails counseling faculty and graduate students against unionization, “the University has not provided a platform to the full campus community to discuss the implications,” wrote the University AAUP chapter in flyers promoting the talk. 

President Zimmer and Provost Diermeier’s e-mail was sent out on August 24, a day after the NLRB ruled that research assistants and students teaching at private universities have the right to unionize in their capacity as workers.

“…it is vital that we maintain the special and individual nature of students’ educational experiences and opportunities for intellectual and professional growth. A graduate student labor union could impede such opportunities and, as a result, be detrimental to students’ education and preparation for future careers. It could also compromise the ability of faculty to mentor and support students on an individualized basis,” the e-mail read. 

The University AAUP chapter, on the other hand, welcomed the NLRB ruling and challenged Zimmer and Diermeier’s claim that unionization would be detrimental to graduate education. 

“Many world-class universities—both public and private—have student employee unions. If unionization is damaging to graduate student education, there should by now be some evidence of that. The e-mail from President Zimmer and Provost Diermeier provides no such evidence,” stated the University AAUP chapter in their written response to the e-mail. 

Zimmer and Diermeier’s e-mail made a case against graduate students unionizing on the grounds that graduate students’ role is different than those who typically engage in unions, that collective bargaining imposes a third party between faculty and students, and that unionizing makes the graduate student experience inflexible to individual circumstances.

Becker provided a point-by-point refutation of the e-mail, stating that Zimmer and Diermeier’s case for those who engage in unions is no longer true in the current labor landscape.

“Most collective bargaining is no longer by blue collar workers, but by knowledge workers. Engineers at Boeing, reporters at Washington Post, writers in Hollywood, teachers, and professors,” Becker said. 

Becker challenged the notion that unionizing would create a third-party that would come in between students and faculty.

“Who is this union that is going to come between students and faculty? Who is this union? The union is student organizers, they choose their representative, they sit at the bargaining table, the only way an agreement is reached is if they wish to have that agreement,” Becker said.

“[A graduate student union] receiving technical assistance from the union should be no different than the university receiving technical assistance from its lawyers. There is no third party here.”

Becker also emphasized that the required subjects of bargaining were wages, hours, and working conditions and thus, the relationship between faculty and students wasn’t really the contention point in unionization. Further, he emphasized that even if that were the case, the parties—graduate students and the faculty—could decide what the relationship looks like.

“[If] the first thing everyone needs to make clear is that the relationship between faculty and students is sacrosanct and can’t be interfered with, that’s a perfectly appropriate thing to put into agreement,” Becker said.

He pointed to frequent uses of direct dealing in unions, in which employees collectively bargain on some subjects, but agree to deal directly with employers on an individual basis on other subjects. 

Finally, Becker addressed concerns that unionization could standardize graduate experience.

“The NBA, Hollywood, and traditional print workers, all unionized, top to bottom. So what would LeBron James, Meryl Streep, and Bob Woodward say if we told them your collective bargaining is preventing your employers from rewarding merit?” Becker said.   

The event was attended by over a hundred faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students on the third floor of Swift Hall.