By TONIA HILL
In just one week graduate students at the University of Chicago, (U. of C.) will hold an election that will determine whether or not graduate student workers 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.
GSU and U. of C. administration have been in NLRB hearings since May to litigate GSU’s petition for an election.
Discussions involved the form of the election and the size of the bargaining unit, and whether or not graduate students are considered 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.
In August, the NLRB gave the graduate students the okay to hold an election that will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 17, and Wednesday, Oct. 18.
U. of C. has since filed a Request for Review of the decision.
“We’re very disappointed that they continue to argue that we’re not workers,” said GSU member Claudio Gonzáles. “This is certainly the line that they are pushing in the request for the review. We are, in fact, workers and have the right to unionize. We are very frustrated and no less adamant about our beliefs that we are workers and our work is central to the university.”
Last year, the NLRB ruled that students who work as teaching and research assistants have the federal right to unionize.
“We view this as an educational relationship,” said David Nirenberg, executive vice Provost at U. of C.
Noting that for many years the NLRB also viewed the relationship between graduate student workers and universities similarly “as an educational relationship, not one that is best served by collective bargaining by an outside party that has no experience in education.”
Columbia University graduate students, last year, as a result of NLRB’s decision, voted to unionize.
“Our circumstances at the University of Chicago, dictate that we should carefully review [the NLRB’s decision] before we make major changes to an educational structure that has worked very well and that we fear would not work with a third party and a collective bargaining position,” Nirenberg said.
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.
Nirenberg said the university is in constant dialogue with the graduate students to address any issues that may arise and maintains that problems can be resolved without a union.
With the union recognition, GSU will negotiate with the university for a contract. The move toward unionization will also force the school according to GSU to address grievances differently.
Nirenberg cited a $2 billion investment over the last decade in graduate education as well as an increase in stipends, childcare stipends, professional training services, and communication and resume writing services for graduate students that were reached without the presence of a union.
In the wake of the discussions on the election U. of C. launched a website titled “Know the Facts,” which provides an overview of the impact of unionization on the university as a whole.
In a letter addressed to the university community last month, Daniel Diermeier, Provost at U. of C. wrote: “A union’s inherent need to maintain a one-size-fits-all approach to collective bargaining threatens the ability of the University and faculty to meet the individual research and teaching needs of graduate students in diverse disciplines and circumstances.”
The SLEU also 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.
GSU last week also introduced polling locations on campus for the election that must be done in person.
Locations include the Regenstein Library, 1100 E. 57th St.; Hinds Laboratory for Geophysical Sciences, 5734 S. Ellis Ave.; Kent Chemical Laboratory, 1020-24 E. 58th St. and Stuart Hall, Cox (basement) lounge.