U. of C. grad students’ union stages ‘Day of Visibility’

Quiet winter scene on U. of C. campus belies unrest among members of Graduate Students United labor union. (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

Staff Writer

After last October’s walkout, the union representing graduate student workers at the University of Chicago has been keeping a low profile, but that changed Wednesday when it held a “Day of Grad Labor Visibility.”

Leaders of the Graduate Students United (2016) union say morale is high and that many options are on the table to encourage the administration to come to the bargaining table.

Half a dozen paid, full-time American Federation of Teachers (AFT) staffers are on campus, according to GSU co-president Claudio Gonzales. They are supporting graduate students’ union-related communication, research, institutional relationships and helping plan possible other actions by the students.

Representatives from the Teamsters and the nurses’ union were at Wednesday’s event, held at the Regenstein Library, 1100 E. 57th St. Gonzales said GSU will continue to reach out to groups such as the adjunct professors’ union, Faculty Forward, to “figure out what our common interests are and how we can help each other get to the table and a place we need to be.”

“I think if you look around this room, people are really upbeat,” Gonzales said. Students received stickers to put on graded papers and petri dishes “to show how their labor touches everything. That’s really the fundamental think about grad labor at the University of Chicago and universities around the world, that grad students are the workhorse of that labor.”

The AFT has been supporting GSU since before they sought authority from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to bargain collectively for a contract with the administration. GSU won that vote in 2017, but withdrew from the NLRB process in February out of concerns that the newly Republican-controlled Board would reverse precedent set during the Obama administration that recognized graduate students as workers with federal labor rights.

GSU has sought independent recognition from the U. of C. since then — without much interaction with the administration. “Their general MO is to not acknowledge that we exist,” Gonzales said, though he added that the administration has responded to demand-to-bargain letters.

After U. of C. College Dean John Boyer sent-out a letter stressing graduate students’ “commitment to your students as educators” before the October walk-out, GSU received copies of over 100 letters from grad student supporters assailing Boyer for his position on the fight for a contract.

Gonzales said that 2,000 graduate students are members of GSU. Students elect one steward for every 25 students in an academic department. Ten officers serve on the steering committee, which consists of two co-presidents, three secretaries and representatives from each U. of C. academic division.

GSU is not collecting member dues. “People can really get into their heads that if we start paying dues, it’s for something that we think is worth it,” Gonzales said. “Like, ‘We won this contract, and it was good, and it’s going to get the things that we need.’”

When asked about the potential for strike action, Gonzales responded that discussions are happening at the rank-and-file level.

“Membership has ultimate authority,” he said. Next quarter will be about “getting into their heads and their guts about what we need to do to win — and if that is the sort of thing, how are we going to get there?” He said options like sickouts (i.e. “the blue flu”) and picket lines were potential actions.

On Nov. 19, the administration of Columbia University reversed course and voluntarily agreed to bargain with its graduate student union, which had set Dec. 5 as a strike date. Earlier this year, graduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign went on strike, and a union formed at Illinois State University

While official communication from GSU has stressed the effect of stipend size and inconsistent payment on U. of C. graduate students’ financial well-being — the average stipend for full-time doctoral students is around $30,000 a year — a doctoral student in the humanities at the event who did not wish to be identified for fear of reprisals said his primary qualms were about student–faculty relations and having no set hours or parameters defining what work he would be assigned to do.

“Just for example, I remember professors I’ve TA’d for, certain things they were supposed to do in terms of giving out homework assignments [and] being more involved in syllabus preparation — I ended up having to do some of it, and I’ve had to spend extra hours doing that,” he said. While many graduate students have financial concerns, “I’m also a single male without a family to feed, so it hasn’t been an issue for me,” he said.

“I’m still at the stage where I’m trying to learn what’s going on, so I mostly take in information. I’m not one of the rabble-rousers,” he said.