Graduate Students United demands union recognition by U of C

Outside unions might assist GSU organizers in their lobbying campaigns for higher wages and lower tuition.

By Ilana Kowarski

Graduate Students United (GSU) is lobbying for University recognition as a union, and may seek legal counsel to combat the University's policy of withholding union acknowledgment.

GSU seeks to unionize, after a February statement by Provost Thomas Rosenbaum and Deputy Provost Cathy Cohen announced the decision to freeze advanced residency (AR) tuition rather than lower it, GSU member Duff Morton said. According to Morton, a fourth-year anthropology and SSA graduate student, the provost's AR tuition decision, despite a committee recommendation that AR tuition be lowered, convinced many GSU members that the administration needed to be pressured more.

Outside unions might assist GSU organizers in their lobbying campaigns for higher wages and lower tuition, GSU representative and sixth-year English graduate student Andrew Yale said. The group will decide whether to affiliate with an outside union by the end of May, members said.

GSU has had conferences with five nationally recognized unions to discuss the possibility of affiliation, Yale said. “We are investigating the possibility of affiliating with an outside union. That way, we can get more money, resources, and lawyers. We can be a union of thousands rather than hundreds,” he said.

GSU will march with the unions they have contacted in Chicago’s annual May Day parade, and various unions will visit campus the following week to make presentations to convince GSU members to affiliate with their organizations. GSU will vote on whether to affiliate or remain independent through an online poll.

“The option to not affiliate­—to remain an independent union—is also very much a possibility,” Yale said. “The absence of formal recognition does not prevent us from coming together and calling ourselves a union.”

In a March statement, GSU said the University's decision proved that graduate students need collective bargaining power. “ believes we have no power on this campus, and without a united, strong voice, we really don't,” GSU wrote. “It is time to unionize.”

Graduate student tuition has been frozen since 2008, and given a historical five percent annual tuition increase, many graduate students will have saved $1,350 by spring 2012, according to the Provost's February announcement. AR can be up to $5,300 per quarter in some departments.

GSU may gain legal recognition as a union if the University voluntarily recognizes it, Yale said. A 2004 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling said that universities are not obligated to recognize graduate student unions, but according to an April 1 New York Times article, with two recent Obama appointments, NLRB will likely change the ruling on graduate student teachers.

Mandatory University recognition of GSU as a union would be significant, Yale said. “Until now, the University administration has talked mainly to committees and Student Government about graduate working conditions, but they were not obligated to listen to us. But, with a recognized union, the University would have to listen. It would be written into the contract.”

Cohen said that while the University does not treat GSU as a union, the administration still considers its arguments. “Anytime we make decisions about graduate students, we speak with graduate students,” she said. “At least I personally have had an open door policy when it comes to graduate students, and I have attended GSU meetings and met with GSU members. That doesn’t mean we always agree, but I do get their input.”

Unionization might harm graduate students by damaging their relationships with faculty, according to Cohen. While most students at New York University and Yale voted in favor of unionization, Cohen said that some students voted against unionization to avoid negative faculty attitudes.

“Graduate students’ relationship with the administration is already compromised without a union,” Yale said in reply. “Admittedly, the administration and we often do not agree, but there is already a hostile feeling among graduate students against the administration. Graduate students would be well-served by an organization like GSU that works towards improving working conditions,” Yale said.