With Unionization Vote Expected to Pass, GSU-UE Switches Gears

Anticipating the unionization vote to pass, GSU-UE leadership is now laying the groundwork for governance and bargaining.


Andrew Goldblatt

GSU organizers at a rally outside Levi Hall on October 19, 2021

By Evgenia Anastasakos and Laura Gersony

Several weeks ago, UChicago’s graduate student workers took to the polls to decide whether to officially unionize. Now, as they await results, the leadership of Graduate Students United-United Electrical (GSU-UE) is preparing to become a recognized bargaining unit.

It’s a moment of transition for the union, which for over a decade has been stuck in a holding pattern as University leadership has heatedly contested their efforts to unionize. Now, with recognition more likely than ever, GSU is gearing up for the hard work of operating and governing a recognized union: deciding what they want to ask for in contract negotiations, how to formalize the union’s internal democratic structures, whether or not to make union membership mandatory, and more.

It amounts to a mode shift in the union’s goals and strategy, leadership says.

“The GSU has grown from a handful of organizers, and one or two hundred people who interact with them, into thousands of people who now have a stake in GSU,” GSU-UE Communications Secretary Valay Agarawal said. “[We’re] changing a loose support statement into actual, committed work that members can do and fight together for.”

The election, conducted in-person on January 31 and February 1 by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), was just the first in a long line of steps required for official unionization. The next key time point is Thursday, March 16, when the NLRB, after counting in-person and mail-in-ballots, will announce the results of the election.

After results are announced, the University and GSU have seven days to object to the vote—­usually on the basis that the election was unfairly administered or interfered with through voter fraud, ballot tampering, or voter intimidation. Or, as happened after GSU’s previous vote in 2017, the employer might challenge the workers’ legal basis to unionize. If the measure passes, which requires a simple majority of votes cast and no objections or appeals to the election, the NLRB will certify the union, requiring the University to treat GSU-UE as the representative of all graduate student workers.

With a more pro-union NLRB this time around, organizers are optimistic that they won’t see a repeat of 2017.

“We have no reason to believe that [a legal challenge] would happen,” says GSU-UE Co-President Neomi Rao. “But we have our parent union, United Electrical, who have a legal team and are ready to give us support if we need to go down that road.”

Reached for comment, the University did not directly answer whether they would dispute the legal basis of graduate student unionization as they did in 2017. University spokesperson Gerald McSwiggan wrote in a comment to The Maroon that “the decision of whether to unionize ultimately will be made by the eligible graduate students who vote in the election” and noted that “the University has strongly encouraged all eligible graduate students to vote in the election.”

The election at UChicago is taking place against the backdrop of a recent wave of successful graduate student unionization efforts. After the series of union wins across the country, they expect the University to follow a similar path to institutions like Harvard and Columbia, where graduate student unions have successfully negotiated contracts in recent years.

If the vote passes, GSU-UE has plans to hit the ground running by electing a bargaining committee and beginning the process of negotiating with the University.

Union leadership says they’re still soliciting feedback from membership about what to ask for in the bargaining process, but their public platform, put together based on 400 survey responses collected last summer, foreshadows what the union might push for. The platform lists five key demands:

  • A higher base stipend, with annual wage increases commensurate with the cost of living
  • Expanded health insurance benefits, including dental and vision
  • Workplace standard improvements, such as fair teaching and research loads
  • Legal and financial support for international students
  • Access to the University budget and representation in University decision-making

It will likely take several months for bargaining negotiations to formally begin, plus another several months to reach a contract. Reaching a first contract for newly unionized workers takes an average of 409 days, according to a Bloomberg analysis of NLRB data.

During bargaining, union organizers will also have decisions to make about the internal structure of the union.

GSU is affiliated with United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), a national union that Northwestern University Graduate Workers, the University of Iowa’s Campaign to Organize Graduate Students, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology Graduate Student Union have also affiliated with. While UE has its own policies and constitution, GSU-UE organizers say that decisions about leadership, political endorsements, communications, and organizing will still be left to the members of the chapter.

“The part of the dues that stays with the [local] union is governed by us. There is absolute, utter autonomy in how we are running this union. And we will also have a say in how UE works, because we will be a big part of the union’s population,” Rao said.

GSU-UE will be tasked with creating their own constitution, setting out guidelines for the structure and functioning of the union. According to leadership, revising some of the union’s bylaws to reflect this new phase will be on the agenda at their upcoming general membership meeting to be held on Tuesday, February 28.

Another key detail that will need to be settled is whether the union will push for an open or closed shop. A closed shop would mean that all graduate workers at the University will be required to join the union, while an open shop means union membership is voluntary. A closed shop typically gives the union more leverage, as it guarantees that the employer cannot hire outside of the union’s membership, and that all workers observe the union’s rules and pay dues.

This will be decided as part of the contract negotiated between UChicago and GSU-UE, meaning that it will require approval from both the University and the union’s general membership. Union leadership says they don’t yet know where the union’s rank-and-file leans on the question.

“In a personal capacity, not on behalf of GSU members, I want to push for a closed shop union. But we’ll see if that happens or not,” Agarawal said.

Most of the details about the constitution will be decided well after the vote count is released.

“Right now, the phase that we’re in doesn’t really require us to have a full constitution. That’s more something we would need once we have a ratified contract,” Rao said. “We want to be able to be nimble and adaptable to the circumstances.”