Graduate Student Workers withdraw from NLRB

By TONIA HILL
Staff Writer

Graduate Students United, the graduate worker labor union at the University of Chicago today announced that it would withdraw from the National Labor Relations Board.

In a written statement, the Graduate Students United (GSU) said the decision will allow them to “pursue a direct path toward contract negotiations as part of a coordinated national movement to protect the legal status of private graduate employees.”

University of Chicago graduate student workers are taking on an independent path toward negotiating with the University for a contract. GSU is joining other graduate employees at other institutions across the nation that are seeking recognition directly from their universities independent of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

“Graduate employees clearly recognize that we do essential work at the university, and we’re ready to bargain a contract that supports our vital contributions to research and teaching,” said Daniela Palmer, a sixth-year university graduate worker in the Biological Sciences in a written statement. “We’re seeking the clearest and most direct path to securing a contract and upholding our rights as employees.”

Last October, graduate student workers at the University voted overwhelmingly in favor a union 1,103 to 479.

GSU claims the university administration is relying on a now Republican-majority NLRB to invalidate the October 2017 election, which will in turn “strip graduate workers of their legal rights and protections as employees.”

The latest appointment to the NLRB is also of concern to Graduate Students United. President Donald Trump recently appointed John Ring to the NLRB and he has been publicly described as an “anti-labor lawyer,” according to Graduate Students United. Also, last December, the NLRB issued five decisions rolling back “union friendly” rules that were enacted under former President Barack Obama.

“Furthermore, any private grad employee case heard by the Republican NLRB has the potential to set legal precedent that would apply to private sector graduate workers at other campuses,” said Graduate Students United in a written statement.

When graduate student workers were given the green light to hold an election last fall the University filed a Request for Review of the decision.

Daniel Diermeier, U. of C. Provost this morning issued a memo by email on the decision:

“Regardless of this decision by the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) and AAUP (American Association of University Professors), the union election outcome last October indicated that a large number of graduate students believe that the University should do more to support them. I unequivocally agree, and we will start this process immediately. I have asked Executive Vice Provost David Nirenberg to convene graduate students, faculty, and staff who will help identify ways to improve graduate student life at the University, including determining short-term and long-term objectives.”

Graduate Students United is affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

On Tuesday, the firm representing the University sent a letter to the NLRB asking the board to reverse the Columbia University decision, a ruling that came down in 2016 and determined that private colleges’ graduate teaching and research assistants are workers and have the federal right to unionize. The ruling is the base of Graduate Students United campaign for unionization.

Last week, graduate students rallied outside in the snow to deliver their demand to bargain with the University for a contract.

“Over the course of our unionization campaign, graduate workers have built a strong collective voice on this campus,” said Grant Macdonald, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Geophysical Sciences. “We voted decisively in October to have a say in our working conditions, and we’re ready to meet the university at the table.”

The benefit of unionization, according to Graduate Students United, is having a legal binding contract to enforce fair wages, benefits, and working conditions for graduate students. The move toward unionization will also force the school to address grievances differently.

A university spokeswoman by email said:

“The University is committed to working with graduate students and faculty to improve graduate education and graduate student life. The Office of the Provost will soon convene graduate students, faculty and staff who will help identify ways to improve graduate student life at the University, including determining short-term and long-term objectives. The many contributions that graduate students make are critical to the entire University, and the involvement of our community will be critical in improving support for students’ aspirations, education, and quality of life.”

GSU was formed in 2007 and has advocated for health care, childcare, stipends to match Chicago’s cost of living, funding to finish degrees and a regularized pay schedule.

t.hill@hpherald.com