U. of C. graduate students’ union authorizes strike

The U. of C. main quad (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

Staff writer

Members of Graduate Students United (GSU), the unrecognized union of University of Chicago graduate students, have voted 1,134-112 to authorize labor actions up to and including a strike, according to union leaders.

The ballot, on which more than 75% of GSU members voted, also announced a meeting open to voting members Tuesday night to determine what action the GSU will take. Union officials refused to say what action, if any, has been decided.

GSU formed 19 months ago after a National Labor Relations Board-certified vote in which graduate students who serve as teaching assistants, instructors and lecturers — predominantly in the U. of C.’s academic, not professional, programs — unionized by a 1,103-479 margin. The Chicago Tribune reported at the time that GSU could represent over 2,500 students.

The U. of C. had asked the NLRB to review its decision to allow the election. As Republican appointees took positions on the NLRB, however, GSU withdrew from the federal labor board’s process in February 2018, fearing it would jeopardize their legal standing to collectively bargain for members.

Since then, graduate students’ unions at schools like Georgetown University have been voluntarily recognized by administrations, something GSU wants. A similar battle for voluntary recognition is unfolding between Loyola University Chicago and its graduate student union.

Andrew Kunze, a doctoral student at the Divinity School and a GSU divisional representative whom union leadership made available for an interview, said students get no contracts governing their relationships with the University.

Whether there is a legally binding relationship between graduate students and the U. of C. “gets right to the core of the question we’re debating, about whether or not we are employees of this University.” Terms that graduate students teach or do research for the departments are “not a contract but an expectation,” Kunze said.

“Acceptance emails are wonderful letters,” Kunze said, “but they’re not a contract, and the terms that are spelled out in acceptance emails can change capriciously.” The U. of C. began its Graduate Aid Initiative (GAI) in 2007; it now includes graduate students in the humanities, social, biological and physical sciences and those in the Divinity and Social Service Administration schools, providing five years of funding. In March 2018, Provost David Diermier raised the nine-month funding level to $27,000 for the current nine-month academic year.

Kunze said $27,000 is tough to live on in Hyde Park and that it can take longer than five years for graduate students to finish their degrees — though students do earn more from outside funding sources, by working as teaching assistants or doing paid research.

Kunze called GAI “a gift, not a paycheck,” and said graduate students have no contract regarding it. He called the relationship between hitting academic benchmarks and receiving funding “mysterious.” Students have also complained about late receipt of money from the U. of C.

Kunze said GSU is fighting for a standardized, independent grievance procedure for allegations of discrimination, saying that students who have problems with supervisors or instructors often have to report it up their shared academic structure in addition to a contract covering pay and health care.

He declined to name the number of GSU members there are; he said the union collects no dues and that students become members by signing membership cards. The GSU steering committee announced the vote to authorize labor action at its May Day rally; it was open to GSU members through digital and physical polling over five days. “We are working towards walking off the job and onto a picket line,” Kunza said. “The academic year is wrapping up, so you should expect something soon.”

Kunze called the present “a time when the often-invisible labor of graduate students is rendered visible” — students’ final projects and term papers have to be marked-up; exams have to be proctored; grades have to be submitted.

“The purpose of any job action that we’re going to do is not to disrupt teaching, learning or research happening on this campus, which we love, participate in and contribute valuably to,” Kunze said. “The purpose of any job action that may come is simply to get the administration to recognize GSU.”

Reached for comment, U. of C. spokesman Jeremy Manier said the University has great appreciation for all that graduate students bring to its intellectual community and is “committed to the success of all graduate students, including those who may choose to strike, as well as to the education of the undergraduates and master’s students who are enrolled in affected courses.”

“The University is working directly with graduate students and faculty on many fronts to improve graduate education and quality of life,” Manier said. “The University continues to believe that direct engagement is the best path to improving graduate education.”

(Editor’s note: This story has been updated.)