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UChicago Grad Students Fought for a Union for 15 Years. Now They May Win It.

On January 31 and February 1, the National Labor Relations Board will oversee the long-awaited union election.

UChicago student union supporters are pictured holding signs.

For graduate student workers at the University of Chicago, winning a union would mean a lot of things.

For Neomi Rao, a third-year Ph.D. student in political science, it would mean a systemic response to problems of exploitation, harassment and mistreatment that graduate student workers face.

For Valay Agarawal, a second-year Ph.D. student in the chemistry department, it would mean more support for international students who struggle with everything from covering their rental deposit to work restrictions.

For Brianna Suslovic, a second-year Ph.D. student in social welfare, it would mean creating good minimum standards for the working conditions of all graduate student workers across the university.

And for hundreds of other graduate students across a range of disciplines, it would mean everything from winning better benefits, to more representation in university decision-making, to better support for working parents.

Now, after more than 15 years of organizing, the graduate student workers at the University of Chicago may finally win recognition of their union, UChicago Graduate Students United-United Electrical Workers (GSU).

On January 31 and February 1, the National Labor Relations Board will oversee a union election of 3,000 graduate students who “are employed to provide instructional or research services.” If GSU wins, the University of Chicago will join a wave of recent graduate student union victories from MIT to Yale to Boston University.

While the university’s administration is opposed to unionization, graduate workers like Agarawal, who serves as the GSU’s communications secretary, feel confident going into the vote.

“We are going to win the election,” Agarawal told Truthout.

“A Really, Really Long Fight”

UChicago GSU formed in May 2007 when a handful of students united to challenge a multimillion-dollar university spending initiative that they felt contained major inequities.

After a few years of petitions, protests and even a “teach-out” for fair pay and health care, GSU voted to affiliate with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Association of University Professors in 2010. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) finally scheduled a union election in October 2017, in which UChicago graduate workers voted to unionize by more than a 2-to-1 margin.

But GSU’s fight for unionization was far from over.

The university appealed the certification of the election results, stalling the process until the Trump administration secured a conservative NLRB majority in 2018. Fearing a negative ruling that could threaten other graduate student unions, GSU withdrew its NLRB certification and pivoted towards achieving direct recognition from the university.

The union escalated its campaign over the next year, staging a walk-out, a teach-in, and in June 2019, a three-day strike. Amid the pandemic in June 2020, GSU disaffiliated from the AFT and became an independent union, announcing that it aimed to “fight for better working conditions and union recognition through direct action” rather than wait for a pro-labor NLRB. Their struggle continued into 2021, when they waged a “Fee Refusal Campaign” against the university’s student services fee (SSF), a nearly $1,300 yearly fee that, graduate students were told, covered a range of campus services. With the financial uncertainty of the pandemic and diminished access to the campus because of COVID-19 precautions, GSU felt graduate students shouldn’t have to pay the fee. In January 2022, GSU won a “major victory” when the university announced it would include the SSF in the funding packages of all Ph.D. students.

In August 2022, an emboldened GSU voted to affiliate with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), pointing to the UE’s emphasis on rank-and-file democracy and local autonomy, as well as its experience in supporting graduate student organizing. With the university administration continuing its refusal to voluntarily recognize the union, and with a friendlier NLRB in place, GSU officially filed for a union election, submitting more than 2,000 signed union cards to the labor board on November 30, 2022. The NLRB set the election for January 31 and February 1, 2023.

All this comes over five years after the first union election was stymied and over 15 years after GSU first formed. Graduate students hope the upcoming election can finally deliver the union recognition they’ve long sought, and with it, the right to bargain directly with their employer as workers whose labor — from teaching to grading to lab work — is at the core of the university’s daily functioning.

“It’s just been a really, really long fight,” said Rao, who serves as GSU co-president.

A Living Wage and Better Benefits

GSU prides itself on its democratic structure and rank-and-file driven internal culture. Its members have been organizing energetically for this union vote — doing phone banks, distributing window signs, selling union swag and staging walkthroughs in labs and offices.

While they haven’t formalized any bargaining demands, GSU has released a five-point platform based on a survey that hundreds of members participated in.

The demand for a living wage headlines the platform, with a call for an annual stipend of “at least $40,123” with a guarantee of “annual raises comparable to cost-of-living increases.” The current stipend is $33,000 per year, though the university — perhaps feeling the pressure from the union — says it will rise to $37,000 for the 2023-2024 academic year.

Guaranteed dental, vision and comprehensive benefits, both for graduate students and their dependents, is also a major demand. Graduate students currently pay out-of-pocket for dental and vision insurance. There’s a $4,800 annual premium to get health care for a dependent — around 15 percent of the current annual stipend.

Rao called the current level of dependent coverage “abysmal,” and also pointed out the “laughably small” child care stipend of $2,000. According to the Economic Policy Institute, child care costs in Illinois as of October 2020 averaged $13,802 annually for infants and $10,372 for 4-year-olds.

“Grad school really isn’t accessible if you have a family, unless you have a spouse who’s well-off who can cover your kids under their plan,” Rao said. “If you’re a single parent, and you’re trying to be a grad student, it’s kind of unimaginable how you could do that.”

Suslovic, GSU’s other co-president, said that dental and vision insurance should be part of the “bare minimum standards” that the university provides to graduate workers.

“A university with an endowment as large as the University of Chicago’s should not have graduate workers who need to sign up for food stamps, or graduate workers who haven’t been able to go to the dentist in five years,” Suslovic told Truthout.

More Equity, More Transparency, More Power

GSU also emphasizes the need for more equitable policies, including “consistent workplace standards and policies toward race, gender, and disability justice in all University-owned spaces” and “fair teaching and research loads that are equitable across cohorts, labs, and divisions.”

Suslovic pointed to STEM fields where, she said, “there are really no guardrails in place when it comes to having protections around working hours,” with supervisors getting away with “posing pretty ridiculous expectations on students.”

Erin Hatton, a labor sociologist at the University of Buffalo who studies graduate student labor, told Truthout that “higher education would basically crumble to the ground without graduate student labor, especially in the sciences,” where graduate students and postdocs “perform essentially all of scientific research.”

“They are the ones who are doing the experiments, running the experiments in the lab, day in and day out,” Hatton said. “Graduate students are absolutely workers and their work is vital to the university.”

Agarawal said that STEM graduate workers are leaders within GSU. “Many departments — math and physics — are powerhouses of organizing. They have surplus organizers, so they go out and organize other departments.”

Rao said the successful union drive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was particularly inspiring. “They were scientists organizing themselves and showing that conditions in labs were untenable,” she said. “There was this narrative that the STEM fields weren’t pro-union, and that’s been really shattered in the last few years.”

When it comes to equity, Suslovic also emphasized that the university’s Title IX policy is “relatively limited,” since it runs through the administration. The union wants to make third-party arbitration available in instances of discrimination or harassment against graduate students. Rao adds that discussions have surfaced around “implementing anti-discrimination policies around gender, race, sexuality, caste, and other identity categories.”

The union is also calling for more fairness and support for international students. Agarawal, who is from India, told Truthout that the demand for a living wage is especially important for international students like him. “As international workers, we are on an F-1 Visa, and we are only allowed to work 20 hours a week,” he said. “A living wage is all the more important to us as international workers, because we can’t take up extra jobs to supplement our income.”

Agarawal also stressed the need for more institutional support for international students around everything from putting down a deposit on a rental, to covering visa fees, to navigating how to file taxes.

GSU, which prides itself on its open and democratic structure, is also calling for more transparency in the university’s budget and more power in decision-making.

UChicago is a massive institution that oversees a $14 billion portfolio, including an $8.6 billion endowment and real estate holdings across the city. The university’s Board of Trustees, which controls endowment spending, is interlocked with the heights of corporate power, especially finance and tech. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is a trustee, and the influential private equity billionaire David Rubenstein is chair of the board.

Rao says it’s frustrating how “opaque” the university system is, making it “very difficult as an individual student to know what you can even ask for or demand.”

“The university doesn’t make its budget public, so it’s difficult to know where the money is and what it’s being spent on,” Rao said, adding that more transparency here is “a fundamental aspect of why we’re unionizing, because we want the power in decision-making.”

Rao brought up the university police department as an example of an area the university is putting resources into without enough transparency. The University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) is the largest private police force in the city. Student activists have called on the university to disclose the UCPD’s budget and to disband the force after repeated shootings by campus police, including the 2018 shooting of Charles Thomas, a University of Chicago student who was experiencing a mental health crisis.

Suslovic also pointed to real estate, with the university being a “major owner of property in Hyde Park and a landlord,” she said.

Suslovic hopes that graduate students can gain “a better understanding of where and how the university has influenced in our community” so as to better “participate in shaping some of the objectives, specifically around things like policing in our community, but also around more broadly, what kind of relationship we all as workers and residents would like to be having with people in and outside of the university space.”

Part of a Larger Wave

While graduate student unionization has been happening for decades, the movement is currently experiencing a wave of growth and militancy. The top six largest union filings of 2022 were all graduate student unions. Tens of thousands of University of California graduate students waged a nearly six-week strike last fall, and new elections filings and victories are piling up everywhere from Johns Hopkins and Syracuse, to the University of Alaska and Yale.

“I think this moment of unionization is kind of happening across the country in all kinds of industries,” said Rao, pointing to Starbucks and Amazon as inspiring examples. There’s a growing understanding, she added, that “we’re very precarious as workers in this country and we need to do what we can to protect ourselves and our colleagues.” She also cites a “new NLRB that’s favorable to grad students unionizing” as a factor.

Agarawal said that UChicago GSU has been sustained by its relationship of support and solidarity with Northwestern University graduate students, their neighbors and fellow UE affiliates who just voted to unionize by a massive margin on January 10 and 11. The two unions have been “sort of piggybacking off of each other’s campaigns,” he said — sharing resources, attending each other’s rallies and celebrating each other’s victories together.

The University of Chicago opposes unionization, saying that it “is not in the best interest of our graduate students” and referring to the union as “a third-party representative.”

Suslovic calls the “third party” claim “a very typical response to a unionization effort,” but says it falls flat against the union’s “obvious counterexample” of democratic decision-making driven by its rank-and-file.

“The union is comprised of colleagues, not of any sort of outside force that has an agenda,” she said. “The agenda is set by us, the colleagues that are organizing each other.” The decision to affiliate with the UE, for example, was made at a general members’ meeting attended by several hundred graduate students, and the current GSU platform is based on a survey of hundreds of members.

With the union mobilizing energetically for the election, and with the high number of signed union cards already submitted to the NLRB, GSU is in a strong position to finally win union recognition.

For graduate students like Rao, winning the union will give graduate students more power, protection and voice — but it also has a larger meaning.

“I think what’s really powerful about a union is it really fights a lot of the isolation and alienation that people feel in grad school and other types of work,” she said. “It’s a really powerful way to come together with people and fight for something tangible in your own life that you’re experiencing every day, and that you can make a real difference in.”

“That’s a pretty incredible feeling,” she said.