University of Chicago grad student workers file for NLRB-run election
University of Chicago graduate students celebrate their filing with the NLRB for a union. Photo courtesy of U of Chicago Graduate Students United |

CHICAGO —After university bosses rejected their request for voluntary recognition, aka card check, despite a supermajority of 2,000 union election authorization cards, graduate student workers at the elite University of Chicago filed for a National Labor Relations Board-run union recognition election.

The Nov. 30 filing, by Graduate Students United-UE (GSU-UE), now affiliated with the United Electrical Workers, marks their second attempt to unionize within the last decade, the independent student newspaper, the Maroon, reported. The NLRB’s Chicago office has set no date for the balloting, but the union expects it in the January-March quarter of the school year.

In the first drive, GSU, then affiliated with AFT, filed with the NLRB for union recognition several years ago. But, fearing the university bosses would appeal any favorable ruling to the then-Trump-dominated NLRB, the union withdrew its petition rather than giving that board majority a chance to use their case to outlaw all grad student union drives at U.S. private universities.

Before that prior drive, GSU, in existence starting in 2007, had won several improvements in working conditions without unionizing, but by showing massive support.

A survey of hundreds of the grad student workers fleshed out details of what the union would fight for should it win this NLRB vote.

“While we would prefer the administration recognize our supermajority now, we’re excited to move forward towards voting to secure a living wage, comprehensive dental and vision care, international student support, professional standards and equitable policies for work in our labs and classrooms, and real decision making power over our working conditions,” GSU-UE posted on its website. Wages, once set, would be tied to inflation “and other cost of living metrics.”

As in other universities, stipends for graduate student workers at Chicago do not cover the cost-of-living in their community, Hyde Park, which has been gentrifying ever since urban renewal began in 1955. Some grad students—workers or not—commute long distances, from Chicago’s near northern suburbs, for example, to the South Side campus.

Grad student workers from coast to coast are among masses of underpaid, overworked and often youthful workers nationwide—retail workers, Amazon workers, port truckers, adjunct professors and more—who have turned on their own to unionizing to fight back.

Assuming the workers win the vote and bargaining begins, GSU-UE would also demand health care coverage extend to dependents, with no out-of-pocket expenses. The students want “fair standards for work hours,” third-party arbitration of grievances—including sexual discrimination violations—and transparency in the university budget for their work.

The union would fight for “real grad power in UChicago decisions, budget, and investments,” GSU-UE’s website says. “Graduate workers at UChicago account for a significant portion of the research, teaching, and administrative workforce…As the workers closest to our labs and classrooms, we are the experts on what resources we need in the workplace to successfully conduct world-class research and scholarship,” it adds.

“A majority of graduate workers signed our union cards because we fundamentally deserve a voice in our workplace. Unionizing is the only way to guarantee us legally enforceable negotiating power to win the tools we need to be outstanding teachers and researchers with a healthy work environment and fair compensation. We are excited to affirm the power we have built together by voting for our union.”

The university still opposes the union. The provost told the Maroon unionization “would likely bring more disadvantages than advantages” to the student workers. It took the same stand against Teamsters Local 705’s successfully organizing drive among the undergraduate workers in the university’s library system.

Disclosure: The author of this story graduated from the University of Chicago in 1975, and worked on the paper, the Maroon, all four years there, including a year as editor-in-chief.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.