Graduate Students Untied from American Federation of Teachers

We are excited to announce that our membership has voted overwhelmingly to disaffiliate from the American Federations of Teachers (AFT) and to proceed as an independent union. This decision comes after months of research, conversations among our membership, and a bargaining session with the AFT Academics (AFTA) program lead. Moving forward as an independent union, we are committed to the pillars of base-building, direct action, political education, and mutual aid. We encourage those who are interested in building a 21st century labor movement to reach out and join us.

In January 2020, AFT announced that they were ending their campaign with Graduate Students United (GSU). GSU undertook a months-long process preparing for an affiliation vote. The Stewards Council passed a bylaw that outlined how and when the bargaining process and the referendum regarding affiliation would occur. Two research committees were formed to research GSU’s options, one on AFTA and another on an independent union, and they presented their research at the General Members Meeting on May 20, 2020. On Wednesday June 3rd, we held a 48-hour electronic vote to determine our path forward. The referendum presented membership with two options: re-affiliation with AFT through the AFT Academics program or proceeding as an independent union. GSU members voted overwhelmingly in favor of moving forward as an independent union, a decision we take very seriously.

AFTA is not a union, but a membership program geared towards connecting individuals to AFT’s national media campaigns. AFTA members pay monthly dues of $11.00, an option that would go against our promise to membership that we would never pay mandatory dues until we had a contract. Richelle Fiore, director of the AFTA project, informed our bargaining committee that AFTA’s largest membership “cluster” (as opposed to union local) at this time has only 30 members, and that AFTA did not have a concrete plan to support GSU as an organization. When we asked for our members’ dues to be invested directly back into the work of GSU, Fiore told us “that’s not how this works.” Without exception, each AFTA-affiliated graduate worker that we spoke to, across several institutions, urged us to form an independent union, citing AFTA’s obstruction and hindering of campus action and lack of financial and organizational support. Our bargaining committee is working to ensure that AFT and AFTA will not use data collected through our campaign to contact GSU members.

As an independent union, our members now have the final say in the direction of our union in terms of our goals, actions, and finances. Given the unfavorable terrain of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and our fiercely anti-union bosses, we are re-evaluating our organizing priorities and re-dedicating ourselves to the project of strategically organizing around and winning material gains on our campus and in our community. Fighting for legal recognition via the NLRB has occupied much of GSU’s organizing capacity throughout the course of our campaign with AFT. Rather than waiting for a favorable change in the composition of the NLRB, we will fight for better working conditions and union recognition through direct action.

When we say that we are building a labor movement for the 21st century, we are talking about building a movement that fights for workers despite the lack of National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protections for many workers and despite the lack of courage on the part of business unions to stand up for the so-called “unorganized.” We stand on the shoulders of giants in this regard: the legal protections of the NLRA and subsequent labor laws were hard fought victories gained through protracted labor struggles against both employers and the state throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Going forward, we will continue our fight for dignity and justice by acting in solidarity with our fellow graduate workers here and at other universities across the nation, with other workers at the University of Chicago, and with community and labor organizations across the South Side. Our active solidarity and base-building work will allow us to combat the financialization and corporatization of the university, as well as giving us the collective power to win the living and working conditions that we all deserve. We are committed to strengthening our solidarity and engagement with other unions through the University of Chicago Labor Council (UCLC) and the X-Campus Coalition of graduate workers across the nation, student-led campaigns on our campus, and social justice organizations on the South Side. Given the University of Chicago’s historical relationship to slavery, systematic destruction of black and working class communities on the South Side, and maintenance of the University of Chicago Police Department, GSU believes that the struggle for a more just and democratic campus is inextricably tied to larger struggles against police brutality and racism.

If any GSU member wishes to join AFTA and pay dues to AFT as an individual, they are more than welcome to do so. However, we urge everyone to consider contributing directly to GSU if they wish to support a union financially. Please consider joining our organizing work over the summer. We have a lot of exciting work to do, including: revising and updating our constitution, planning and establishing fundraising mechanisms, expanding our media footprint, organizing for future direct actions, continuing to grow our mutual aid work, and more. To sign up for updates on summer organizing, please fill out this form and we’ll be in touch!

In solidarity,

Graduate Students United