Graduate Student Unionization: For World-Class Research and Teaching at UChicago

For graduate workers, organizing their colleagues and fighting for union recognition are imperative steps in producing high-quality work.

On November 16, members of UChicago Graduate Students United – United Electrical Workers (GSU-UE) delivered a letter to the offices of President Alivisatos, Provost Lee, and Secretary of the University Lori Berko. This letter was a request for the University administration to voluntarily recognize our labor union. After the University declined to voluntarily recognize us, we delivered a petition for a union election to the National Labor Relations Board and the University on November 30. Following the University’s public response to our union effort on November 29, we are continuing to engage in public dialogue about our campaign. At this juncture in our organizing, we want to pause and contextualize our efforts, to highlight our reasons for unionizing and our aspirations for the UChicago community.

Over the last few months, we have conducted surveys, convened mass meetings, and engaged in hundreds of one-on-one conversations in labs and offices across campus. We have become increasingly aware of a number of challenges faced by graduate student workers on this campus that prevent us from achieving the highest standards for academic research and instruction, including but not limited to: annual salaries below the living wage in Cook County, expensive dental and vision insurance, insufficient grievance and time off policies, and a lack of resources for graduate workers who are parenting, disabled, or international students.

To excel as a world-class institution, the University of Chicago must invest in making graduate programs accessible to graduate students from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, especially our colleagues of color, our international colleagues, our first-generation colleagues, our disabled colleagues, and our caregiving/parenting colleagues. This is why GSU-UE is fighting for common-sense improvements to our working conditions as researchers and instructors. We are fighting for:

  1. A living wage that keeps up with cost of living.
  2. Guaranteed dental, vision, and comprehensive benefits.
  3. Equitable policies for our labs, classrooms, and community.
  4. Fairness and support for international students.
  5. Transparency and decision-making power.

In our capacity as researchers and instructors, we work alongside faculty and adjuncts year-round, teaching students, grading assignments, running experiments, collecting and analyzing data, assembling manuscripts, and otherwise ensuring that UChicago is a world-class institution for research and learning. Through countless conversations with our coworkers, it is clear that UChicago does not provide us with sufficient resources to efficiently produce the best research possible. As employees of the University of Chicago—and as experts in what we need to produce high-quality work—we are seeking a seat at the table when it comes to our working conditions, pay, and protections.

As a labor organization that formed in 2007, we’ve been around for long enough to know that the University prefers to see us as students, not workers. Despite the University’s assertions about our student status, we are acutely aware that if we do not fulfill labor obligations related to teaching and research, we are unable to retain our pay, our benefits, or our statuses as students. As individuals tasked with running data analysis, teaching undergraduate and master’s level courses, and working to support the research of our faculty supervisors, we are indeed workers, and we are motivated to organize in solidarity with each other.

Furthermore, unions for graduate students are a fundamentally normal feature in U.S. universities. Graduate employees at many public universities have benefited from strong unions since the 1960s (for example, at the University of Illinois Chicago, University of Michigan, and University of Wisconsin–Madison). We look forward to joining our unionized peers in private universities at New York University (NYU), Columbia, Harvard, the New School, Brown, and Georgetown, all of whom have bargained contracts with their administrations, along with the many others who are building campaigns right now, such as our fellow UE-affiliated graduate unions at MIT, Indiana University, Northwestern, Dartmouth, and Johns Hopkins.

GSU-UE currently represents a majority of graduate students who perform work across the university. Over 2,000 graduate workers in every division of the university have signed union cards, indicating their desire for representation in bargaining a labor contract with the university. (For context, the University census indicates there are 3,135 Ph.D. students enrolled. We also estimate several hundred masters students perform work as TAs or RAs.) As a fundamentally democratic body, we aim to set bargaining goals for a contract that will meet the needs of every department and every graduate student. A union provides the substantive, democratic decision-making power that graduate students currently lack in our workplaces.

We know that unions deliver tangible, meaningful wins for graduate students. Student Workers of Columbia recently won a 40% increase of the minimum hourly wage, guaranteed 3% annual raises for the duration of the contract, 75% coverage for dental premiums, $5,000 child care stipends, an out-of-pocket medical expenses fund of $350,000 that increases over time, two weeks guaranteed sick leave, and access to neutral arbitration for cases of harassment and discrimination. University of Michigan graduate students have negotiated better conditions for international students, including reimbursement of Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVIS) fees, covering the cost of an English Language Proficiency workshop, overwork protections to prevent violating the terms of the student visa, and the creation of a legal hotline for international students to call with visa and immigration issues. The Harvard Graduate Student Union recently won dedicated funds for childcare, dental, and out-of-pocket medical expenses, twelve weeks of unpaid family and medical leave where access to healthcare and benefits is retained, guaranteed desk space and private advising space, prepayment for work-related travel, and discounted transit passes. In 2021, student workers at NYU ratified a contract that prevented U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection from entering campus and the university from giving either agency information about NYU community members’ immigration statuses as well as designating the presence of the New York City Police Department on campus as a health and safety concern that the union can bargain over. While these represent just a few, incomplete examples of the many real improvements that unions bring about for graduate students, they reveal the importance of using workers’ power to improve broader campus conditions.

As an organization with a long history of collective organizing at UChicago, our unified demands of the university administration have played substantive roles in a number of material improvements for graduate workers in recent years. After our 2018 walkout, the University overhauled its funding structure to ensure that Ph.D. students are funded for the duration of our programs, rather than abruptly cutting funds before completion. After our student services fee refusal campaign in 2021, the University agreed to cover the fee for Ph.D. students in all divisions. Graduate workers no longer have to take $1,200–$1,600 out of their stipends each year to pay the university for unnamed services. We proudly claim these organizing victories as examples of what we can accomplish as a union, and we feel confident that with legal recognition, our voice will only get stronger.

Graduate workers at the University of Chicago spend countless hours working for the benefit of everyone at the university. We teach, research, and support our faculty and undergraduates because we believe in the importance of a strong intellectual community. As individuals invested in the robust intellectual legacy of our university, we see graduate unionization as the logical extension of that powerful tradition–in supporting graduate workers’ free speech and protecting our labor, we will only grow in our capacity to produce world-class research and instruction here. We look forward to winning the election and sitting down at the bargaining table with the University.