Graduate Students may Vote on Union this Fall

The vote will determine whether GSU will represent a group of approximately 2,500 graduate students who teach or are research assistants.

By Michael Lynch

Graduate students will likely have the chance to vote to form a union this fall, the Chicago regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled last Tuesday, though the University said shortly thereafter that it will a request a review of the decision.

The vote, which is scheduled for October 17 and 18, will determine whether the organization Graduate Students United (GSU) will represent a group of approximately 2,500 graduate students who are teaching or research assistants in union negations with the University. GSU is associated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers and American Association of University Professors. GSU has been pushing for a vote on unionization since the NLRB ruled last August that students who work as teaching or research assistants have the right to unionize.

The University had objected to University of Chicago graduate students holding a vote on unionization, arguing two months ago in a 10-day hearing before the NLRB that graduate students have a primarily educational relationship with the University, are not legally employees, and are therefore ineligible to unionize.

NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr said in his July decision that University of Chicago teaching and research assistants are employees, as they “perform services for the benefit of the employer, under its direction and control, for which they are compensated.”

After the latest NLRB decision, the University reaffirmed its position that a union would be detrimental to the University of Chicago.

“We do not believe a union would promote the academic values that are at the core of graduate education at the University of Chicago,” University spokesperson Jeremy Manier wrote in an e-mail. “The University of Chicago has a long-held commitment to graduate education, and we take seriously our mission to provide the mentorship and training that allow students to excel academically and become leading scholars.”

GSU members reacted favorably to the decision. Daniela Palmer, a graduate student in the Biological Sciences Division and GSU member, told The Maroon, “We in GSU believe that our work is central to the University’s mission and fundamental that we get to have a seat at the table to make decisions that affect our working conditions.”

This Thursday, two days after the decision, the University announced its intent to request that the NLRB review the decision, which could stall or halt the scheduled election.

Pro-union organizers expressed concern that a delay could hurt their chances, as Claudio Gonzales, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Mathematics and GSU organizer, told The Maroon in an e-mail. “This ongoing refusal of democracy is especially insulting because it is so transparently a delaying tactic, serving only to bide time until the Trump administration reverses the 2016 Columbia ruling allowing graduate students to unionize.”

Palmer is optimistic for an election outcome in GSU’s favor, assuming the election goes forward. “We’ve had strong support and are continuing to build that support. I’m confident in the turnout.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, expressed support for GSU. In an e-mail, she stated,“I am immensely proud of the University of Chicago graduate employees, who have fought for the freedom to have a union,” and described graduate students as the “backbone of the academic work of the university.”