STEM Departments Should Think Twice Before Voting in Favor of Unionization

By UnJin Lee

As a graduate research assistant in the Biological Sciences Division (BSD) at the University of Chicago, I am voting against the current unionization efforts largely spearheaded by Graduate Students United (GSU). I am not broadly opposed to graduate students’ unionization efforts, but I am firmly opposed to this current campaign, particularly the inclusion of the BSD in the proposed bargaining unit. The unionization campaign is currently plagued by a severe lack of specific, realistic demands as well as a demonstrated propensity by union advocates to discount the concerns of those whom they are petitioning to represent. With easily over $1 million per year in dues on the line, this current unionization drive is fostering a situation ripe for abuse, leaving us with no guideline or metric to hold the proposed union accountable. Broken promises are common in our political system, but a complete lack of promises is a rare sight indeed.

A recent letter titled “Graduate Students in STEM Departments Affirm Their Support for Student Unionization” (05/29/17), signed by the departmental organizers of GSU, contains a list of motivations for unionization within the Biological and Physical Sciences Divisions. Exhaustively, these include: access to the University's financial statements, the ability to negotiate with the University regarding pay and benefits, support against lapses in funding, limits on teaching hours/load, improved student/mentor relationships, and an altered system for grievances. Despite its obvious importance in this campaign, such a publicly accessible list of demands has not been previously presented to graduate students in the Biological Sciences in any format—by paper, e-mail, or website. This letter has appeared in print in The Maroon only one day before May 30, the proposed election start date, according to the documents submitted to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Perhaps this reticence is due to our division's demonstrated willingness to conform to GSU's demands, as shown by a new policy outlining a uniform division-wide 2 percent pay increase for graduate students.

Regardless, a detailed examination of this list shows that many of these demands ring hollow, as they are already provisioned for under existing University policies. Having access to the University's financial statements and the ability to negotiate with the University notwithstanding, there are few actual demands that would actually affect the lives of students in the Biological Sciences. Full departmental support is already guaranteed in the case of lapses in funding. Not only does a cap on teaching load already exist at two quarters total, a cap on teaching hours for graduate students already exists—in fact, GSU spearheaded a 2016 campaign to remove this cap on teaching hours! While there is a possibility that student/mentor relationships could improve through unionization, a careful reading of the citations provided in the previous Letter to the Editor supports the hypothesis that there is little evidence for a degradation of these relationships, not that these relationships will generally improve. Conversely, a correlate improvement is shown only in very narrow cases, with the vast majority of results being non-significant. (Note that no correction for multiple hypothesis testing was applied either, so many of these significant results are expected by chance alone.) At best, they can only provide two bits of anecdotal evidence to that end, strictly in the form of single quotes from students at other universities. Finally, in regards to an alternative system for grievances, this is simply not within the scope of employer-employee negotiations. GSU cannot and will not have the power to change the existing system for grievances. While there are certainly many problems within the administration that could be improved, unionization is not a magic bullet that will make all these problems disappear.

An additional contentious issue is the inclusion of all research and teaching assistants in the Biological Sciences within the proposed bargaining unit. A personalized and anonymized division-wide poll was conducted in the Biological Sciences showing that a supermajority of BSD students is against unionization (more than 60 percent voted against with a turnout above 60 percent). The results of this poll were forwarded to all students within the division, as well as GSU directly. Despite GSU's lack of documented evidence demonstrating support for the BSD's inclusion into the bargaining unit, the decision was made to still include this division. Requests for evidence of such support have been repeatedly denied. Additionally, a coherent list of demands has never been presented in writing until the previously mentioned Letter to the Editor. Other information regarding the timing and method of the election has similarly been withheld, despite such information being publicly available. This lack of transparency illustrates the discordance between the interests of GSU and the interests of their proposed constituents. Such behavior is unlikely to change in light of this union's certification.

With a lack of realistic demands and no lasting evidence with which to hold the potential union accountable, I urge students of the Biological Sciences to deeply ponder the potential benefits of unionization against a loss of income in dues along with the very real possibility of a strike. In documents submitted to the NLRB, GSU, the American Federation of Teachers, and the American Association of University Professors requested an election from May 30–June 20 by mail. Importantly, the union is certified by showing majority support of those who vote, not by a majority of the proposed bargaining unit. Once a union is in place, it is exceedingly difficult to decertify it. However, if this effort fails, another election can be held as soon as a year after the first vote, allowing for modifications of the proposed bargaining unit. With that in mind, update your address at and REMEMBER TO VOTE.

UnJin Lee is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Committee on Genetics, Genomics, and Systems Biology.