Graduate Student Parents Write in Favor of Unionization

By Letter to the Editor

The University of Chicago administration would have us believe that it has its graduate students’ best interests at heart. The Provost’s website insists “Graduate voices matter.” Exhibit A for this claim is the quarterly child care stipend that the administration instituted in 2014, a provision that it claims “came about through direct discussions between students and the Provost Office.” With friends like these, who needs a union?

As some of the students who initiated those “direct discussions,” allow us to shed a bit of light on what they entailed. We are current and former members of both the Student Parent Group (SPG) and Graduate Students United (GSU). Not all SPG members belong to GSU. But to write GSU out of the history of student parent advocacy on campus is to fundamentally distort the facts. Our experience advocating for affordable childcare, better parental leave policies, and lactation spaces on campus has reaffirmed our belief that a union is an essential tool for amplifying our voices. As graduate workers, we need a formal mechanism for negotiating the policies that shape our lives.

Before GSU launched its Childcare Campaign in the spring of 2011, the quarterly child care subsidy for student parents was $0. The number of dedicated on-campus lactation rooms open to graduate students was zero. The parental leave policy, such as it was, didn’t allow students to check books out of the library, retain their student health insurance, or maintain their student status with immigration authorities while tending to their newborns.

These non-policies had a dire impact on student lives and campus culture. Those of us who became parents in graduate school, especially women, often took long, unpaid leaves of absence from their programs. Many of them were unable to complete their degrees despite the years of teaching and research labor they had performed for the University.

GSU members decided this had to change. As scholars and organizers, we did our research. We put together a report documenting the several areas where UChicago fell short of its so-called peer institutions in meeting student parents’ basic needs, and we presented it to administrators at a meeting in the summer of 2011. When administrators responded with a proposed “needs assessment survey,” we pointed out grave flaws in its methodology. We continued to organize picnics, panels, and postcard campaigns to demonstrate the broad-based support for pro-parent policies on campus.

We also took to The Chicago Maroon, Inside Higher Ed, and local radio to publicize the need for lactation spaces. Lactating parents need places to pump and store breastmilk or to breastfeed on the job, and Illinois employers are required to provide these spaces. If we had been recognized as employees, we would have been legally entitled to them; as students, we had to beg, plead, and ultimately organize for them. Our concerns were ignored for years, but once they hit local airwaves and the pages of national publications, administrators began to take a lively interest in the issue, and a number of nooks and crannies were carved out and repurposed as dedicated lactation rooms. (We are still waiting for a list of these spaces to be made public.)

Meanwhile, in December 2013, administrators finally got around to announcing a childcare subsidy. Their timing was no accident: The announcement followed directly on the heels of New York University (NYU)’s landmark voluntary recognition of its graduate employee union, which sent chills through administrators at other private universities that rely heavily on graduate student labor. Since childcare was one of the major issues driving GSU organizing, it was a good area to target for UChicago administrators looking to demonstrate good will. Despite the limitations of the new policy, we welcomed it with open arms.

Unfortunately, the concession we were able to win fell short of affordable childcare. The subsidy is something of an absurdity: Although the application requires proof of financial need, the maximum award of $500 per quarter doesn’t come close to actually funding the cost of childcare. The University’s own website acknowledges as much: “While not covering the bulk of child care expenses, these stipends are intended to help alleviate some of the financial hardship our student parents face….” Moreover, the application process is completely lacking in transparency: Students have no way to know how many stipends will be awarded and on what basis. Single parents, and parents with more than one child, are particularly hard-pressed to make the stipend work, since it does not take into account the number of caregivers or family size. And since the program was created unilaterally in response to pressure from an unrecognized union, the administration is free to reduce or eliminate the stipend whenever it wants.

If not for GSU and its ability to rally fellow graduate employees in support of our cause, we would never have come this far. Still, compare our situation with what recognized graduate employee unions at the University of Michigan and NYU have been able to win: large and stable pools of funds for childcare and transparent rules for their distribution, alongside paid parental leave and plenty of lactation rooms. It’s worth mentioning that these unions have also negotiated substantial pay raises, health care benefits, and grievance procedures in cases of harassment and discrimination. As graduate workers, we appreciate those, too.

Now that we are legally recognized as employees, it’s time for us to take the next step and form a legally recognized union. If the administration wants to show us how much graduate voices matter, they are welcome to voluntarily recognize GSU and negotiate with us directly. They are not welcome to write us out of the history of the campaign for parent-friendly policies at this university.


Claire Roosien, Ph.D. candidate, Near Eastern languages and civilizations and Russian history; former chair, SPG

Madeleine Elfenbein, Ph.D. candidate, Near Eastern languages and civilizations; former board member, SPG

Timothy Gutmann, Ph.D. candidate, Islamic studies; current co-chair, SPG

Nadia Khan, Ph.D. candidate, Islamic studies; current co-chair, SPG

Flora Roberts Ph.D. ’16; former chair, SPG

Anna Weichselbraun Ph.D. ’16, organizer of GSU Childcare Campaig