In a decisive and historic victory in the struggle for graduate workers at private universities across the United States, the graduate workers at the University of Chicago voted overwhelmingly on Oct. 17-18 to form a union. Cast were 1,103 yes ballots and 479 opposed.
In August 2016, the National Labor Relations Board overturned its 2004 ruling that graduate students at private universities are not statutory employees. In the previous decision, the petition of graduate workers at Brown University to affiliate with the United Auto Workers was rejected, thanks in large part to union-busting efforts of Brown’s then-provost and current UChicago President Robert Zimmer.
Due to their victory, UChicago graduate employees will be represented by Graduate Students United, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors. Like their colleagues at New York University and Yale, the GSU had developed a longterm organizing presence on campus, even when the hope for official recognition as a union was dim.
GSU organizing for past decade
GSU was founded in 2007 after the university implemented a funding initiative that promised better financial support and working conditions to incoming students, without making any changes to that of existing students. Through extensive research, GSU organizers found that graduate student labor made up a third of teaching on campus — a substantially higher figure than the university boasted in its undergraduate recruitment literature.
GSU soon developed a democratic organizing structure and was a driving force in campus labor struggles, fighting for better financial support and wages, resources for graduate student parents and reductions in fees. In the absence of GSU’s legal union recognition, the university administration itself has taken credit for many of these concessions that would have been impossible without grassroots organizing.
Solidarity work has also been an important part of GSU’s campus presence, with members serving as key organizers in struggles against the university’s private police force as well as in the successful fight to reopen the UChicago Hospital’s Level 1 adult trauma center to serve the South Side of Chicago.
The UChicago administration deployed a largely legal strategy in their anti-union efforts. UChicago’s legal counsel on Sept. 22 filed for both a stay of the election, in an attempt to prevent graduate workers from voting together, and a review of the election order. The review sought to overturn the regional labor director’s decision for the election to proceed, by appealing to the NLRB where two Trump appointees have just been confirmed. The stay was not granted, and the review has yet to be heard.
UChicago administration and President Zimmer have made it clear that they will continue this legal route in an attempt to delegitimize and negate the election results. Provost Daniel Diermeier announced this plan in an email to graduate workers and faculty on Oct. 19. UChicago will join several other universities calling on the NLRB to reverse the August 2016 decision. The administration has further emphasized its legal strategy by hiring Proskauer Rose, the same legal team that fought graduate worker unionization at Cornell, Duke and Columbia universities.
Battling anti-union rhetoric
In a further attempt to undermine graduate workers, the administration has framed anti-union messaging as neutral intellectual debate. Their depiction of the union as a third-party entity, interested only in collecting dues at the expense of academic integrity, is a common thread in anti-union rhetoric throughout the U.S.
The administration has also leaned on faculty, many of whom are insecure in their own employment, to move graduate workers away from voting “yes” through one-on-one lobbying and department-wide emails. Representatives of the university have spoken at length in different forums about the unique and indispensable relationships between graduate workers and their faculty mentors. They depict a union as an interfering presence that would fundamentally change those relationships, while using faculty as their mouthpiece for this messaging.
The graduate workers’ win at UChicago is likely to have an invigorating effect on similar campaigns across the country. While the win is significant, so too will be the struggle to bring the administration to the bargaining table. No graduate workers on a private campus have bargained for or ratified their first contract yet, even though labor law requires administrations to come to the table in good faith. UChicago graduate workers have a fight ahead of them, but they also have considerable momentum from their victory.