By TONIA HILL
Graduate students at the University of Chicago (U. of C.) were given the green light by the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election this fall that will decide if graduate students can unionize.
The Graduate Students United (GSU), the graduate worker labor union at U. of C., as well as a group of undergraduate student employees known as the Student Library Employees Union (SLEU), filed separate petitions with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in May seeking unionization.
The quest toward unionization has taken some time. GSU started the card campaign phase in the winter months.
Graduate employees were asked to show interest in filing an election petition as a union by signing an authorization card. The card itself is legally binding and is logged with the National NLRB, and it shows interest in becoming a union.
“The regional NLRB ruled that we are workers and they have ordered a vote to take place in October,” said GSU member Claudio Gonzáles. “When we petitioned [the NLRB], we wanted the graduate students on campus, and all of those in the bargaining unit to collectively decide whether or not we want representation. It’s very exciting that we’ve reached this phase.”
GSU and the U. of C. administration have been in NLRB hearings since May to litigate GSU’s petition for an election. Specifically, discussions involved the form of the election and the size of the bargaining unit, and whether or not graduate students can be considered as employees.
The bargaining unit is comprised of 2,500 graduate students that are enrolled in its Physical Sciences, Biological Sciences, Social Sciences, Humanities, Social Service Administration and Divinity schools.
“What they [U. of C.] chose to do instead was legally contest the legitimacy of our request for unionization,” Gonzáles said. “The reason why we can unionize at all is because of the 2016 Columbia [University] case that [former President] Obama’s NLRB decided that graduate students are laborers and they can unionize.”
Last year, the NLRB ruled that students who work as teaching and research assistants have the federal right to unionize.
Columbia University graduate students, last year, as a result of NLRB’s decision voted to unionize.
The benefit of unionization, according to GSU, is the possibility of having a legal binding contract to enforce fair wages, benefits, and working conditions for graduate students.
With the union recognition, GSU will negotiate with the university for a contract. The move toward unionization will also force the university according to GSU to address grievances differently.
Relatedly, the SLEU won an election to unionize in June with 80 percent of voters supporting affiliation with Teamsters Local 743.
About 93 student library employees voted in an election that was held on June 2, and June 8. The NLRB conducted the vote, 67 voted in favor and 13 against the measure.
University administration challenged 13 graduate student votes because of an overlap with GSU’s unionization process.
As of, Tuesday, Aug. 8, Gonzáles said the university is appealing the SLEU’s election. “Things like that may happen to us,” he said.
In May, GSU hosted a massive rally that was attended by graduate students, undergraduates, U. of C. faculty and staff, as well as community allies.
It included a short march from where it was held on the quad near Edward Levi Hall, 5801 S. Ellis Ave., through the quad East onto 58th Street, to the front doors of Levi Hall where GSU organizers desired to drop off a petition demanding the administration voluntarily recognize the union.
U. of C. President Robert Zimmer said previously, “A union could come between students and faculty to make crucial decisions on behalf of students, focusing on collective interests rather than each student’s individual educational goals.
Noting “The nature of collective bargaining could also compromise the ability of faculty to mentor and support students on an individualized basis.”
Zimmer also noted that a union would not be an effective advocate for the interests of graduate students.
“The enhancements of the graduate student experience at [U. of C.] in recent years occurred without union representation,” Zimmer said in a written statement. “They were the result of direct interaction among graduate students, faculty, deans and the provost’s office.”
The vote will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 17 and Wednesday, Oct. 18.