The State of Unionization

Graduate students weigh in on pros, cons.

By Tyrone Lomax and Rachana Muppa

A National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling last September that graduate students at private universities can collectively bargain prompted unionization campaigns on campuses across the country.

The University of Chicago has been no exception. The question remains whether graduate students should unionize.

While grad students at several universities have already voted to unionize, the pro-union group at the University of Chicago, Graduate Students United (GSU), is still in the campaigning phase of the process, and an exact date for the upcoming vote has yet to be publicized.

Last fall, President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Daniel Diermeier sent an e-mail outlining the negative effects of unionization. The e-mail argued that unions could impede individual student experiences and that improvements to graduate life can be made without a bargaining party.

The Maroon interviewed University of Chicago students in a number of graduate divisions for this story. Many indicated their support for organizing a union; however, others acknowledged that they were not very informed about the campaign.

By forming a union, proponents say, graduates would have a stronger ability to voice concerns regarding living standards, working conditions, and the process of filing grievances. The GSU website cites that while current institutions such as the Office of the Student Ombudsperson and the Bias Response Team exist, they hope to see improvements due to mixed reports of their effectiveness.

Tamara Kamatovic, a sixth-year in the German department and a former GSU member, emphasized the importance of open communication between graduate students and the administration. Graduates are in a unique position because they produce “intellectual labor” in the form of teaching, Kamatovic said.

“I think it is important that if outstanding issues come up in my workplace that I have something like a union as an arbiter about decisions that maybe I, or my boss, or even the University can’t manage,” Kamatovic said.

According to Kamatovic, the administration needs to improve on both acknowledging that what the teaching graduates do is work, and providing appropriate pay and protections for that work. Thomas Newbold, a Ph.D. student in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, agreed.

“I think unionization mainly deals with the administration, not our relationships, as graduate students, with the faculty. And it’s a way of making sure questions like health insurance, questions like the salary that we receive, and the working conditions under which we are employed when we work as teaching assistants are solved,” Newbold said.

Newbold stressed a delineation between the administration and faculty. He argued that graduate students’ relationships with departmental faculty are of a different nature than with administration. As a result, they concern different aspects of graduate life.

He emphasized that the relationship between graduates and faculty would remain unaffected by the formation of a union, contrary to what is propagated by the administration. Instead, the dynamic between graduate students and faculty is “manage[d] autonomously,” separate from what is overseen by union policies, Newbold argued. 

According to a second-year GSU member in the English department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to safeguard grant funding, there is a lot of communication between the English department’s faculty and graduate students. This encouraged a feeling of security, diminishing his cohort’s support for unionization. However, he argued that this was one of the integral aspects of unionization: making graduates aware of problems they may not necessarily be experiencing, but can still advocate against.

Eric Powell, a GSU member and a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the English department, had the same opinion regarding the relationship between graduate students and the administration. “We don’t really have a voice right now outside of the union. The administration makes a big show of taking the concerns of graduate employees…but…we have no real influence this way,” Powell said.

Ramzi Nimr, a master’s student at the Divinity School, commented,“…I don’t know all too much because…I don’t know if this really affects me and I’ll be getting out of here next year.” However, due to his friends’ strong feelings on the matter, Nimr felt confident in supporting unionization.

As for the entirety of Divinity School, Nimr sensed broad support. “Generally everybody is for [unionizing], except for maybe some faculty members… But all the students are very active. The Divinity School is very active,” Nimr said.

Heather Siegel, an M.B.A. student at the Booth School of Business, was also not familiar with the upcoming vote. “I personally would lean against [unionization],” she said. “I think a lot of people at Booth [are] more free market and more generally opposed to unionization.” Siegel acknowledged that Booth has largely stayed out of the debate because unionization would not directly affect students in professional schools who are not teaching assistants.

A reluctance to pick a side of the debate can be seen across the graduate population. A GSU member and fourth-year in the psychology department expressed his frustration that the debate surrounding unionization makes it seem like there are two distinct sides. The student claimed that there are opinions on a spectrum within the administration, the graduate population, and GSU. He said, “It’s frustrating to be pushed into either direction because neither direction is the best answer for me, [or] I think for a lot of people.”

Taylor Docking from the Harris School of Public Policy said that it was his first time even hearing of any push to unionize. Drawing from his experience as a teacher, he said that he associated unions with stalling, not enabling reform. While he acknowledged that the function and need for unions differs in each industry, Docking’s education background made him a skeptic.

A fifth-year student in the neurobiology department echoed this sentiment. The student, although generally supportive of unionization, clarified, “I don’t think unions are the solution…. But when I look at what we have right now and what I would want—protections for graduate students in place, and representations for graduate students in place—a union is a lot more compatible with that idea than the current status, which is not [being] unionized.”

She went on to say that even if GSU does not successfully unionize, the process will have served as a valuable experience, one that asks graduate students to consider: “‘What is our quality of life? What aspects of our personhood are addressed or are not by our advisors, departments, this university, [or] the protections set in place?’ I guess for me, I really value that that has been asked of all of us.”

According to the GSU website, “Those who do academic work for the University are eligible to sign an authorization card to call for a union election. Titles include: TA’s, RA’s, CA’s, BA’s Preceptor, Ministry Assistant, Lecturer, Instructor and Workshop Coordinators.”