Pandemic Further Strains Graduate Student Workers

GSU fights for graduate student aid as members say that COVID-19 has highlighted the need for the University to recognize the union.


GSU members participate in an October 2018 walkout.

By Nikhil Jaiswal, News Editor

The University of Chicago engages in a delicate balancing act, employing graduate students across a host of critical educational support roles while simultaneously maintaining that graduate student labor does not constitute work, instead being a part of their education. The conversation surrounding the treatment of graduate workers by the University is resurfacing in light of the impact of COVID-19 on graduate students.

According to Laura Colaneri, a member of the communications team for Graduate Students United (GSU), the as yet unrecognized union for graduate student workers, the COVID-19 crisis has thrust graduate workers into a realm of uncertainty.

Colaneri said that the shift to online classes has been especially burdensome for the graduate students who teach and assist in those classes. As a course assistant during the 2020 spring quarter, Colaneri witnessed the move to remote classes firsthand.

“You don’t just take an in-person class and put it online. You’ve got to do a lot of extra work revamping the types of assignments to make sure they’re going to be worthwhile as assessments and as a way to provide learning opportunities,” Colaneri said. “You’ve got to rethink what sort of work can get done remotely…. It’s requiring a huge amount of work and learning.”

In a separate interview, graduate student worker Stephen Cunniff had similar thoughts about the shift to online classes and its toll on graduate workers. In Cunniff’s view, “being a Ph.D. student is very self-motivated, and doing that outside of a university environment can make it feel like a Faustian experience. Everything you do is much more difficult, everything is burdened with stress and anxiety.” Cunniff described the University’s actions so far as “sending their thoughts and prayers” and “a lot of platitudes,” with little sign of any substantive aid—such as an extension of time-to-degree funding or a relaxing of intermediary program deadlines—coming from the administration.

On top of the increased workload of online learning, graduate student workers have had to cope with the loss of critical academic resources due to pandemic. One graduate worker shared with the union that a graduate worker shared that a long-planned archival research trip had been cut in half due to the pandemic. “Nobody can give 110 percent right now, as we usually expect of UChicago students. There is no way [the University] can expect graduate workers to have accomplished as much as they were expected to be before the pandemic.”

However, the biggest threat, in Colaneri’s view, is the prospect of an austerity budget after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended. Across the country, colleges and universities have instituted hiring freezes in response to budgetary pressures brought on by the coronavirus crisis.

The University implemented its own hiring freeze in April 2020, confirming the worries of graduate students who fear the long-term impacts of an austerity budget. In Colaneri’s eyes, an “austerity budget, and the cutting of faculty and tenure track positions that come along with that, isn’t good for the University.”

“We are going to be fighting against austerity at our university for years to come,” she said. “Higher education has already been decimated by austerity multiple times, and for the good of the profession, the good of academia and free expression, and for the good of our students in the future, we’re going to have to fight against that.”

In light of these challenges, GSU has published a letter to the administration on their website, outlining what they believe UChicago should do to help graduate students. The letter, which has already garnered the support of graduate students, alumni and professors, asks the University for an additional year of funding graduate degree programs, an extension of health insurance eligibility, and a $4,000 emergency stipend as a COVID-19 relief grant for all graduate students.

“We need an extension on time-to-degree and funding so that people will be able to survive,” says Colaneri. “It is the least that the university could offer to help protect some of its graduate workers at this time.”

For Cunniff, the struggles faced by graduate workers during the pandemic highlight the need for a recognized union for graduate student workers. “The only way that graduate student workers can ensure good living and working conditions is if they have the right to organize and bargain collectively.”