Hundreds of Graduate Students Participate in Pro-Union Walk Out

More than 350 GSU members and supporters turned out.

Demonstrators march through the street on South Ellis Avenue.

By William Yuen Yee, Contributor

In one of the largest campus demonstrations in recent years, over 350 graduate student lecturers, teaching assistants, and instructors participated in a planned walkout on Thursday morning to the steps of Levi Hall, which houses the offices of the president and other members of University administration.

The demonstration was scheduled specifically for 11:03 a.m., symbolic of the 1,103 graduate students who voted overwhelmingly in favor of unionization last October in a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. GSU withdrew its NLRB case in the winter, as there was concern that a new Republican majority on the NLRB could use the case to reverse its position on the right of graduate student workers to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act.

Ahead of the walkout, Chicago mayoral candidate and current Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle lauded the move on Twitter. She called on President Robert Zimmer and Provost Daniel Diermeier to “honor GSU’s collective bargaining rights and recognize them immediately as a union at the University of Chicago.” 

The rally began with a series of impassioned chants, such as “You’re late, you’re late, you’re late to negotiate,” and “United we bargain, divided we beg!”

Claudio Gonzáles was one of five speakers to address the crowd, which spilled over onto the street. A fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the math department, he also serves as the copresident of Graduate Students United (GSU).

In an interview with The Maroon, Gonzáles said, “We’re the backbone of this institution. Without us, this place doesn’t function. Yet, they still pretend that we’re just children and that we don’t have any importance to this place.”

“It’s infuriating the way this institution refuses to listen to our voices.” Gonzáles elaborated, saying that many of his colleagues faced “late pay, pay that doesn’t keep up with the cost of living, inadequate healthcare—we don’t even have Vision or Dental.”

In her address, Karen Rice, a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University and member of the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees, agreed. “From unlivable wages to dangerously costly healthcare, the University of Chicago harms the graduate employees who make this University run.”

In his speech, Daniel Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, described the rally as among the largest he has ever witnessed. He also labeled the current plight of graduate students as “an affront to the University.”

Third-year Sam Joyce, president of Students Organizing United with Labor (SOUL), described the University as one that “puts profit ahead of the well-being of all of the members of this community.” Other speakers echoed these sentiments in their remarks, condemning the reticence of the administration to act and calling for the University to immediately begin negotiations toward a collective bargaining contract with GSU.

Participants in the walkout defied Dean of the College John Boyer, who on Wednesday, October 17 sent an e-mail asking that graduate students fulfill their instructional responsibilities instead of “walking out on [their] students.”

Peter Fugiel (A.B. ’07, A.M. ’12), a sociology Ph.D. student, was one of hundreds of participants at the rally. In his time at the University, he has held a range of positions, working as a teaching intern, a lecturer, and a research assistant.

“I believe a union contract would bring much needed transparency, accountability, and fairness to grad student employment,” Fugiel told The Maroon. “That’s why I walked out from my research job today to demand the administration meet us at the bargaining table.”

Ben Laurence, a lecturer in human rights in the philosophy department, spoke on behalf of Faculty Forward, the union of non-tenure track faculty. Faculty Forward reached an agreement with the University in March of this year, after years of negotiation and under the looming threat of a strike.

“The University has refused to negotiate with you, instead siding with the Trump labor board, a board hostile to the interests of unions and working people everywhere,” Laurence said, emphasizing that UChicago GSU’s efforts are part of a nationwide struggle for fair representation.

An hour later, the rally proceeded down South Ellis Avenue, as participants marched to the Neubauer Collegium at the intersection of East 57th Street and South Woodlawn Avenue, where Zimmer was at the time of the rally, to ensure he was within earshot of their remarks.

In response to a Maroon request for comment, the University affirmed its commitment to free expression and referred to its efforts to work with graduate students.

“The American Federation of Teachers and American Association of University Professors voluntarily withdrew their election petition, and there is no union with legal status as the certified representative of any graduate teaching or research assistants at the University. We continue to work directly with graduate students on a variety of collaborative efforts across the University, including the Committee on Graduate Education and UChicagoGRAD, to improve the lives, education, and professional development of graduate students,” a University spokesperson said in a statement.