Welcome to UChicago! We’re Graduate Students United (GSU), the union of graduate employees on campus. Those in the College—and in many master’s programs—will encounter us as lecturers, teaching assistants (TAs), and writing tutors. We also work as research assistants, and in many other capacities. While we’ve been in The Maroon a few times in the past year, the top administration alternates between pretending we don’t exist and sending all-campus messages blasting us. So we want to introduce ourselves, and to invite you to join or support us.
If this were an academic paper, the abstract would be simple: We work for the University, and we want an organized voice in decisions that affect us. While we’re still campaigning for recognition, we advocate for better working conditions for graduate workers across UChicago. That’s a broad topic, which includes our income (in an increasingly expensive area); late payments, which have been common enough that the administration acknowledged the problem; the quality of our health insurance, particularly for those with families; childcare; workplace safety, particularly in the lab; institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism on campus; and the need for an independent and robust grievance procedure.
These are big issues. But we believe that we can address them, and more, if the administration comes to the table to talk with us. So, we continue to call on them to engage us in collective bargaining—rather than through easily-dismissed input on committees created by the provost.
A Bit of History
Graduate workers at UChicago formed GSU in 2007, when founders recall that TAs earned $1,500 per course. In our early years, we helped to win various improvements in graduate life, including some support for student parents (an improvement, but still insufficient) and pay increases, particularly in underfunded departments.
Things really picked up in summer 2016, when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled on a case from Columbia, acknowledging that graduate workers at private universities are, in fact, employees, and have the right to unionize. Buoyed by this ruling, we kept organizing, and in May 2017, we filed for a formal NLRB vote on unionization.
The administration kept pushing during this time as well, parroting some common anti-union rhetoric. A routine NLRB hearing to set voting procedures became a multi-week parade of deans denigrating our contributions to UChicago. One described our students’ learning as merely a “byproduct” of our training. Another, when asked whether it helped faculty for a TA to grade papers or exams, cast our work as a burden rather than a contribution, saying, “especially in a class of 19, having someone grading is not a relief to me.” And that’s not to mention what their lawyers said.
After much delay, the NLRB finally scheduled our vote for that October. The administration urged us repeatedly to vote against unionization. A few days before the vote, the executive vice provost wrote to graduate students, reiterating familiar anti-union arguments. He concluded by calling on us all to vote, writing, “Your voice truly matters.”
And so we voted. With high turnout, we voted to unionize by more than a 2:1 ratio. Despite all the efforts to convince us otherwise, we knew it was by working together, as a democratic union, that we could improve things.
Stonewalling Amid Growing Support
Despite our decisive, democratic vote, the administration has refused to recognize our voice. They appealed our case, arguing that we should not have been permitted to vote in the first place. When the NLRB was fully under the control of a majority of Trump appointees in 2018, we (alongside colleagues at other universities) withdrew our formal petition, preventing our case from being used as precedent to overturn union rights for graduate workers nationwide. Instead, we called on the administration to recognize us of its own volition, to work together for the good of the University. In the Trump era, this model has been pursued at peer institutions including Harvard, Brown, and Georgetown, all of which have voluntarily recognized graduate unions.
We’ve made our case in formal and informal settings. We’ve sent letters and spoken to committees. And we’ve shown our collective power: rallying, walking out, and holding a three-day work stoppage this past June. In the process, we’ve seen growing support from faculty, undergraduates, other campus workers, and alumni. The current Student Government leadership was elected on an explicitly pro–GSU platform. Grad Council, which the administration has often tried to play against us, called on the administration to recognize GSU this spring. On a campus that can often feel segmented, support for GSU is remarkably broad, and it keeps building.
Moving Forward Together
While GSU has made important strides toward improving graduate workers’ conditions on campus, we know from ongoing conversations, as well as our 2017 bargaining survey, that across the University, many of us continue to face the same systemic issues, which are often difficult to address on an individual basis. As a union, we build power as graduate workers by coming together from across the University. We also build community, forging relationships across divisions and departments. If you’re in a graduate program, we urge you to join. We should be visible throughout O-Week, both at campus-wide events and departmentally. Talk with your fellow members, and get involved. As a democratic organization, we need your voice in the conversation.
If you play another role on campus, we still need your support. Our vision of a more just university is one that benefits all of us, not only our members. You can wear a button, follow us on social media, and work with allied organizations. If we find ourselves on the picket line again, we hope that we’ll see you there.