In two weeks, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will hold an election to determine whether the University of Chicago’s graduate students will unionize.
The NLRB, the federal agency responsible for enforcing labor laws, will hold the unionization vote on Tuesday, January 31st, and Wednesday, February 1st, on behalf of Graduate Students United (GSU). GSU is affiliated with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of `America (UE), a larger “parent union.”
The university will contact graduate students presently working for the university with information about voting. Graduate students not currently under the university’s employ are ineligible to vote.
The Contours of the Debate
Proponents of graduate-student unionization argue it is necessary to improve working conditions and compensation for graduate student employees, who play a critical role in the university’s research and teaching operations. Furthermore, advocates argue that unionization will give graduate students a stronger voice in university decision-making, allowing them to protect their rights and interests.
Among other achievements, GSU claims responsibility for improvements to doctoral students’ stipends, teaching assistants’ salaries, and the UChicago Student Wellness Center. GSU claims unionization would make such efforts more sustainable and effective.
The university has argued that unionization will negatively impact graduate students’ academic freedom and autonomy and create administrative and financial burdens for UChicago, which it will pass onto students through higher tuition and fees. Additionally, the administration notes that the union may compel graduate student employees to pay fees even if they forgo membership.
Provost Ka Yee C. Lee stated in a January 10 email that “the University’s position is that unionization is not in the best interests of graduate students.”
Some students have echoed the concerns of the administration. They pointed to previous accomplishments of GSU, such as those mentioned above, as evidence that the university is willing to cooperate without legal interference.
One graduate student, who wishes to remain anonymous, said unionization could damage relationships between administrators and students, “pitting them against each other.”
UChicago’s GSU has campaigned for unionization since its formation in 2007. The university administration has opposed the unionization effort from the beginning, arguing that graduate students are not employees and therefore do not have the right to unionize.
According to a 2004 NLRB ruling on a Brown University case, “graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities do not have the right to unionize.” However, a 2016 NLRB ruling on a Columbia University case overturned the Brown University decision, opening the path for unionization once again.
GSU claims to have “overwhelmingly won a union-recognition election in October 2017,” which the university has not accepted. The activists argue the university was “hoping that a conservative National Labor Relations Board dominated by Trump appointees would overturn the legal ruling that allowed graduate workers at private universities to unionize.” Accordingly, GSU chose not to pursue the issue legally during the Trump years.
That was then, and this is now. “[W]ith Biden appointees holding a majority on the NLRB as of fall 2021, GSU is now pursuing legal union recognition,” the activists note.
The unionization effort at UChicago is a complex and ongoing issue. It remains to be seen how the situation will resolve itself, but it is clear that both sides of the dispute have legitimate and compelling concerns.
This begs the question: why is the University so dependent on graduate student labor? The answer is to be found, ironically, among the faculty and their union, the AAUP, which facilitates collective bargaining. Faculty generally set work rules including teaching load, sabbaticals, paid leaves, and other indulgences that not only create cost and labor productivity distortions in university operations, but must be subsidized. The labor subsidy must by definition remain on a lower cost tier; hence resistance to cost escalation and work rule restrictions that would erode faculty subsidization, and encumber their low utilization rates. Faculty may welcome ideological solidarity with graduate students, but not in economic dimensions. ’96, Booth School of Business