During the 2022–2023 school year, unionization became a highly relevant topic among most graduate student circles at the University of Chicago and even bled into local media. It is hard to conceive that any of the graduate students who were employed by the University at the time did not hear or form some opinion on the call for student unionization by various student leaders and groups.
The climax of this discussion saw an electoral process on campus in which, as expected, almost the entire block of eligible UChicago graduate student workers voted for the establishment of a bargaining unit with another labor organization: the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (U.E.). University authorities quickly acknowledged and seemingly accepted the election results. It seemed like a positive outcome for everyone involved, bringing an end to both that chapter and the topic’s relevancy.
Despite things dying down since then, a very important question still remains: what might the consequences of this unionization be? Let us consider two contrasting social and economic theories that discuss unionization and what they might foreshadow for student workers at UChicago.
Unions as Protection for Workers: The Marxist Theory
Unions in their conception were part of the broader reaction to the Industrial Revolution, a critical juncture in which individual work and craftsmanship were substituted for mass-scale production. The fact that the process resulted in a series of widespread riots and worker-led uprisings throughout Europe in 1848 suggested that workers did not labor under acceptable conditions.
One of the most famous interpretations of these grievances was given by Karl Marx in 1848, making way to Marxist Theory. According to Marx, workers were structurally exploited by their patrons by working excessive work hours and receiving little pay. As a solution, he predicted groups of workers would join forces, rise up against their oppressors and the public officials who had allowed their abuse, and lead by governing society.
This theory had a strong global influence and resulted in the creation of unions: collective workers’ blocks that could advocate for the collective. Interpreting these organizations through the lens of Marxism, unionization looked to coordinate a large body of workers into pursuing what many believed to be reasonably acceptable: better wages, limits to the working hours, and adequate working conditions.
With the progress of labor laws and regulations, wider access to education, globalization, and the natural evolution of contemporary economies, a great deal of the most unreasonable labor conditions have disappeared. Despite this, exploitative labor practices and abuse from employers are still widely documented. Therefore, neo-Marxists still argue for unionization as a reasonable defense mechanism for workers by ensuring fair compensation.
Additionally, since being in a union strengthens each individual member’s position due to having the support of a larger body, companies typically have a harder time firing them. Thus, these workers also have better job security.
Considering the case of UChicago, Marx’s theory would suggest that the main advantage of unionization is that graduate students, who had been previously underpaid and overworked, will now be able to credibly bargain for higher pay and fewer working hours. As an additional benefit, university employers might have a harder time firing them due to their collective affiliation, resulting in greater job security.
In this view, graduate students will be able to get better compensation for their work, have more time to spend on leisure, and will feel less concerned about losing their jobs. The only real loser would be the University of Chicago, which only experiences a relatively small decrease in its yearly revenue.
Unions as Hindrances to Society: Classic and Neoliberal Economic Theory
According to these theories, unions tend to be detrimental to our communities. They hinder market forces, as wages should be the natural meeting point of the sum employers are willing to pay their employees and the amount employees want to be paid for performing a task. Additionally, conditions unions typically demand (e.g., higher pay, lower tuition) lead to both price floors (higher base wages) and price ceilings (cap on work demanded), which result in job scarcity, higher competition for these positions, and more expensive products.
Moreover, the artificial job security that unions provide to their members incentivizes them to be less motivated to perform their jobs adequately, leading them to subpar goods and services meant for the customers. In summary, the arising distortion in the labor market results in a large social cost. Through this lens, student unionization seems a lot less promising.
For starters, if employers are mandated to pay higher wages to students, they will likely be less willing to hire. Yet, the increased tentative pay will likely induce a glut of candidates. This combination of job scarcity and increased competition imposes an additional load on students, as they would have to be willing to dedicate more time in specialization and job-searching to vie for increasingly competitive positions.
In all fairness, there is a silver lining: the greater competition for these jobs could incentivize students to better prepare and specialize themselves in their fields and to gather important soft skills vital to career success. Regardless, we could expect that higher-paying jobs will result in students having to invest more labor and time to land these positions.
Another detrimental consequence these theories predict from unionization is an increase in the market price of goods. According to the law of supply and demand, an increase in production costs leads to an inward shift in market supply and, thus, higher prices. Applying this to UChicago, we would expect higher tuition unilaterally, since it would be the producer in this case. The university, as of the 2021-22 academic year, already had the highest cost of attendance in the nation.
Finally, since union workers have less fear of losing their jobs, they have higher incentives to exert less effort, leading to inefficiencies. In the case at hand, this might mean lower-quality work. If this happens, one can envision impacts on faculty that hire less-motivated student research assistants and even the student body, which is instructed by less-motivated student teaching assistants.
A Critical Evaluation
Although it is hard to determine exactly what the graduate student body’s unionization will entail, Marxist and neoclassical economics offer us some predictions. Since the foremost goals of unionization are higher salaries and fringe benefits, we can expect the pay of graduate students to rise. This increase is unlikely to be an isolated process; we can also expect a larger increase in tuition if this is the case, accompanied by a reduction in the number of jobs offered by the university.
The uncertainty on the consequences of unionization remains. However, the fact that such an overwhelming amount (92%) of graduate students voted for it could mean one of two things: 1.), they all had sound arguments, data, and information that convinced them that the benefits exceeded the drawbacks, or 2.), students took a cursory approach and leaned more on Marxist ideas, not giving much thought to the negative consequences of the decision augured by conventional economic theory when voting. We can only hope for the best.
* The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.
Pedro Huet López is a data and policy analyst. Born and raised in a traditional, Catholic Mexican family, his goal is to find innovative ways to serve others. With a background in political affairs, he has worked in the public and nonprofit sectors. He is currently a candidate for a Master's in Public Policy (MPP) from the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, and his areas of focus are lean management, data analytics and the incorporation of economic theory and technology into decision-making.