Hundreds of U. of C. Graduate Students walk out, demand union contract

Graduate students and their supporters fill the quad outside Levi Hall on the U. of C. campus during the walkout protesting the lack of a contract for graduate student workers. (Photo by Gabriella Cruz)

By Gabriella Cruz-Martínez
Contributing Writer

Hundreds of University of Chicago graduate students and supporters staged a walk-out on Thursday to demand the University begin bargaining with their union, Graduate Students United (GSU), to produce a contract for their work.

“It’s not possible to take a picture that contains the whole crowd because huge groups and GSU members from different quads across campus keep arriving,” said Tyler Kissinger, an alum of the college and student body president from 2014 to 2016.

Launched at 11:03 a.m., to symbolize the 1,103 votes cast by graduate students in a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election last fall, more than 500 GSU members and supporters demonstrated outside of Levi Hall, 5801 S. Ellis Ave., on the one-year anniversary of the vote.

The overflowing crowd of graduate teaching assistants, research assistants, lecturers, other graduate workers and supporters walked out of their respective workplaces chanting slogans such as “You’re late to negotiate” and “There is power in a union.”

On Wednesday, Dean of the College John Boyer sent an email that urged graduate students not to participate in the walkout. Boyer said that participants in the GSU demonstration would be compromising their instructional responsibilities by “walking out on [their] students.”

“The University accuses us of walking out on our students, but our working conditions are undergraduates’ learning conditions. We are not walking out on our students, we’re walking out for our students,” said GSU Co-President and mathematics PhD student Claudio Gonzáles.

Ben Laurence, a lecturer in human rights in the Philosophy Department, spoke at the rally representing Faculty Forward, the union of non-tenure track faculty. Faculty Forward reached an agreement with the University in March of this year, following three years of contract negotiations after the union’s inception in 2015.

“The University of Chicago has refused to negotiate with you, instead siding with the Trump labor board, a board hostile to the interests of unions and working people everywhere,” Laurence said. “We think this is wrong.

“We know that across the nation educators at universities, colleges, community colleges, and community schools have been subject to the same neoliberal, corporate, managerial trends that remove our voices at work and make it harder for us to do our jobs well with students. We view [GSU’s efforts] as an essential nationwide pushback to these tendencies.”

The Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery said in a statement: “The time is long overdue for the University of Chicago to bargain with members of GSU. I call on the administration to lead by example and heed the voices of the graduate workers who contribute essential labor to this respected institution.”

Sam Joyce, president of Students Organizing United with Labor (SOUL), said: “Without graduate workers and their labor, I wouldn’t have received the education I got from this University.

“I want the people providing that education to be able to afford a place to live, to afford to get groceries, to have a decent life while they’re teaching here. We are with you.”

As the rally ended, Gonzáles said: “They have the power and responsibility to recognize GSU and the collective voice of over 2,000 members. Today we learned together that speaking out is not enough, we must act collectively in the service of justice.”

The crowd then marched to Neubauer Collegium, 5701 S. Woodlawn Ave., upon rumors that President Robert Zimmer was there, temporarily paralyzing traffic on 57th Street and Ellis Avenue.

Mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle issued a statement of support for GSU Thursday on Twitter saying, “I call on President Robert Zimmer and Provost Daniel Diermeier to honor GSU’s collective bargaining rights and recognize them immediately as a union of the University of Chicago.”

Among the issues GSU advocates for are a better health insurance plan, including dental and vision, better provisions for maternal health and dependents, child support, clear and transparent grievance procedures, and affordable housing for graduate students.

Before the demonstration, GSU stated, “Walking off the job is an unprecedented move for the union members, who feel that they have no choice but to disrupt normal university activities in response to the University’s stonewalling over the issue of unionization.”

The University has yet to issue a statement on the demonstration.