A Message on Faculty – Graduate Employee Relationships by Professor Robert Johnston and Dr. Tom Alter

In a week, University of Chicago graduate employees will vote whether to unionize. Giving more power to grad workers frightens a few faculty members and most administrators, who claim that unions disrupt the harmonious relationship between faculty and their students. Happily, we can attest that graduate student unions do not harm the advisor/advisee relationship.

The two of us, Robert Johnston and Tom Alter, had a positive advisor/advisee relationship throughout Tom’s doctoral studies in History at the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC), which has had a grad union since 2004. Unionism was part of our relationship from the beginning. Tom joined the Graduate Employee Organization as soon as he arrived on campus. By the end of Tom’s first year, he had become a department steward, and he was active in campus organizing and contract negotiations.

Tom’s unionism did not interfere with our pedagogical relationship. Indeed, we’ve never heard of a case where any faculty member or graduate student at UIC expressed any concern about the union harming collegial and mentoring relationships. The same is true for Yale, where Robert taught for nine years. Unionized graduate assistants and faculty continued to collaborate as before.

Of course, some UofC faculty make claims to the contrary. Economics professor Derek Neal worried that with a union “faculty would no longer see their teaching assistants as mentees and future peers.” Dean David Nirenberg fretted that a union would reduce all collaboration to “an economic calculus.” Such dire predictions, crucially, never come with any factual evidentiary support.

Truth to tell, the situation is quite the opposite. Grad unions provide security, respect, and appropriate rules, allowing master’s and doctoral students to flourish. Union work rule are not dictated by national unions but formulated by graduate students themselves, then negotiated with the administration. They simply do not impinge on areas related to mentorship. This finding has been borne out in peer-reviewed research that examined dozens of universities with grad unions.

A union means having a democratic voice at the table when decisions are made affecting your work. It can profoundly improve the working conditions of grads, and it can also bolster the relationship that you have with your advisor or PI. Don’t be afraid to Vote YES!

–Tom Alter, Lecturer in History, Texas State (UIC Ph.D. 2016) and Robert Johnston, Professor of History, University of Illinois at Chicago (Tom’s advisor)

A Message on Housing from GSU Member Caroline Heller

Rent message - Oct 2017

My name is Caroline Heller, and I am a fourth-year doctoral student in English Language and Literature. I support Graduate Students United (GSU) because with a union I’ll have a seat at the table when decisions are made that affect my life, including where I live.

When I started at the University of Chicago in 2014, one factor that shaped my decision was the availability of affordable graduate student housing with dog-friendly options – a huge relief in my cross-country move.

This relief didn’t last long.

In October 2015, the university sold my apartment building and eighteen other graduate student and faculty properties to Pioneer Acquisitions, LLC. I was eventually forced out of my home because I couldn’t pay the additional $400 a month that Pioneer was demanding. The hours I spent searching in vain for an affordable, dog-friendly place interfered with my studies and caused me considerable mental stress and anxiety.  

The elimination of subsidized grad housing is deeply upsetting. Hyde Park has become unaffordable for graduate students because our wages haven’t kept up, forcing many to move to remote neighborhoods. The administration claims that it wants grads to live closer to campus to speed degree completion and facilitate access to university resources. If this were true, the university would not have sold these buildings to real estate speculators who want to convert the units to upscale housing. If the administration cared, it wouldn’t have sold thirteen more graduate student complexes to Pioneer last fall, which will almost certainly lead to further rent increases and a decrease in affordable options.

It’s clear to me that the administration doesn’t have our interests at heart on an issue that is so close to home. I’m glad that GSU does. That’s why I urge you to sign our public Vote YES petition and cast a ballot for our union on October 17-18.

Caroline Heller

P.S. – if you haven’t already, make sure to like GSU on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!


You Can’t Silence Us! A Message From GSU Members

Message on Review FilingLate Friday afternoon, on the eve of the new academic year, the University administration requested that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) review its election order for University of Chicago graduate employees. Continuing its anti-democratic stalling tactics, the administration also requested that the Board either stay our election or impound our ballots. The admin seeks to block our voices from being heard through the ballot box.

The timing of the filing was no accident. The administration waited until it was sure that the Senate would confirm William Emanuel, a Trump administration appointee to the national NLRB, in the hopes that the new anti-worker majority on the Board would reverse the 2016 decision that recognized graduate workers at private universities as employees eligible for collective bargaining.

The University of Chicago touts itself as a home for free inquiry and debate; the university administration has long called for rigorous and informed discussion of grad unionization. But this lofty rhetoric has vanished in the face of the admin’s recent actions. It uses specious arguments such as “most of their experiments fail” to discount our value to the institution, while insinuating that unionization would damage the relationships that graduate students have with our PI’s and advisors (despite peer-reviewed research to the contrary). Now, having been ordered to hold an election by the NLRB Regional Director, the administration wants to simply deny grad workers the right to choose a union.

The administration’s actions send an unmistakable message to graduate employees. Graduate workers teach courses, conduct research, and perform other work that make the University of Chicago a world-renowned institution. But grads are not valued as equal or capable members of our community; we evidently cannot even be trusted to vote on whether or not to vote for a union. Our message back to the admin: You can’t silence us!

If you agree that we deserve a voice through a union, please stand with your colleagues and sign our VOTE YES petition.

A Welcome Back Message from GSU Member Kamil

Kamil - welcome back message

My fellow graduate students,

Welcome back to the University of Chicago. Whether this is your final year or you are just beginning your graduate studies, I’m thrilled to have you as a colleague. This is the start of my sixth year in Developmental Biology, and I am excited because every September brings the opportunity to forge new connections and generate new ideas. Graduate school tends to isolate us. It’s easy to believe that we are making this difficult journey alone or that the challenges are solely individual, even when the problems (such as inadequate health insurance or skimpy paychecks that aren’t always paid on time) are collective ones. But grad workers are the backbone of the University, and our labor produces immense value for this institution. That’s why I am a member of Graduate Students United (GSU). Through our union, I have a voice to address the problems that affect me and my colleagues. And through GSU, I have found supportive friends across campus that I would have not met otherwise.

This October we will vote for legal recognition of our union, and I hope that you will join us by signing our public VOTE YES petition. And I invite you to check our Facebook page to attend the events GSU is hosting. Together, we will make UChicago a truly excellent place for teaching and learning!


A Message on Childcare from GSU Member Neville Eclov

Neville - Message on Childcare

My name is Neville Eclov, and I’m a graduate employee in the Biological Sciences Division.

I’m voting YES for our union because graduate employees at UChicago deserve a workplace that supports workers and their families.

My wife Rachel and I had our daughter in 2014, at the start of my third year. Raising Isobel has been one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences in life. However, like many UChicago grads who have children, I’ve been disappointed at how the university administration’s rhetoric about supporting working parents fails to live up to reality.

The administration touts the range of services it offers to grad parents while providing little actual support. The campus has too few lactation spaces for nursing parents, and navigating pediatric healthcare on USHIP can be a nightmare. But for my family and others, the fundamental problem remains the cost of childcare, which can be as high as $1975 per month at the University’s on-campus facility. Even for those who receive the monthly subsidy of $167 (which exists only because of dedicated advocacy by grad parents and GSU members), affordable childcare remains out of reach. For Rachel and me, this has meant each of us working a second job to make ends meet.

The university administration can live up to its rhetoric by making childcare more affordable for grad workers, thereby reducing attrition rates and time to degree. With $7 billion in financial reserves, UChicago has the resources to fix this problem, but the administration doesn’t want to listen to its employees. With a union, we’ll have the collective voice necessary to make more substantive progress on these issues.

Join me in VOTING YES on October 17-18. Together we can build an institution that enables the growth of academic AND family life.

Neville Eclov

A Message on Healthcare from GSU Member Trish Kahle

Trish healthcare message - Sep 2017

My name is Trish Kahle, and I’m a graduate employee in the Social Sciences Division at the University of Chicago.

I’m voting yes for our union because grad workers and their families need access to affordable, high quality health care.

The university administration’s approach to providing health insurance denies us a voice in determining the coverage we need. The result is a system with high deductibles and unaffordable costs, including for reproductive health services and treatment of chronic conditions; long waiting times for referrals and specialist care; and partner and dependent care that is financially out of reach for most graduate workers.

This system also fails to provide affordable dental and vision care in the standard package. Faced with thousands in additional expenses, many of us choose instead to compromise our dental and ophthalmological health.

As the backbone of the University, graduate workers at UChicago deserve affordable health care for themselves and their families. And with $7 billion in financial reserves, the University administration has the resources to meet our demands. A union will provide us the collective power to make sure our voice is heard.

Join me in VOTING YES on October 17-18. Together we can improve graduate health care at the University of Chicago.

Trish Kahle

PS – Have questions, or want to share your grad healthcare story from UChicago? Send us a message or check out this page for more opportunities to get involved!



Solidarity with DACA Recipients and All Immigrants Facing State Violence

Graduate Students United stands in solidarity with DACA recipients and all immigrants facing state violence. We reiterate the demands made in our February petition urging the administration to protect immigrant students, while acknowledging that progress has been made on addressing some of these demands. Be sure to follow the University of Chicago Coalition for Immigrant Rights, who are doing crucial work to support and advocate for immigrants in the university community.

We will not stand by while the government targets our members, our students, and our coworkers. It’s time to organize ourselves and fight back.

In Memory of Former GSU Member Hannah Frank

It was with great sadness that we learned that Hannah Frank, a former active and essential member of GSU, died suddenly on Sunday, August 27. Hannah earned her PhD from UChicago in 2016, and she had become a professor at UNC Wilmington. While at the University of Chicago, she was a departmental organizer in Cinema and Media Studies (CMS), also working on issues including health care and child care. One member described her as having a quiet moral certainty that inspired new people to join GSU, and inspired existing members to stay active.

This essay, by Hannah’s CMS colleague Ian Bryce Jones, offers a beautiful portrait of her as a scholar, a labor activist, and a generous and giving person.

Our condolences to all those impacted by this loss, particularly those who knew Hannah personally and whom she influenced. May her memory and work continue to resonate through our communities.