NLRB (Finally) Rules: We are Workers!

Today, in a historic decision the National Labor Relations Board ruled that “student assistants working at private colleges and universities are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act.” What does this mean? This decision recognizes that as graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities we are legally entitled to collective bargaining rights. Does this mean that we are automatically on the road to an union contract? No, unionizing is still our choice to make democratically and actively, and it’s one the administration will probably continue to discourage (despite claiming to be “neither for or against”). But this does mean that as of today we enjoy the same collective bargaining rights as other employees covered by U.S. labor law, and that’s huge!

GSU issues a big congratulations to our comrades at Columbia University and the New School for taking their fight for recognition to the NLRB!

While we celebrate wholeheartedly the NLRB decision we also note that it only affirms, and gives legal status to what GSU and its counterparts at private universities have known and acted on for years: academic work is work and #WeAreWorkers. The NLRB has made the right decision in recognizing graduate students at private universities as employees, giving them legal collective bargaining rights. This is a big step forward, not just for graduate students and academic labor, but for the labor movement as a whole.

What Does This Mean Moving Forward?

This favorable NLRB decision gives us as graduate student-employees at UoC legal backing to exercise our right to unionize. We are in our full legal right to mobilize graduate student workers on campus toward building a strong democratic union that can collectively bargain to improve and more fully control our working lives.

While GSU will continue to do the work it has been doing for the past 9 years we will now be able to begin to take the necessary steps to conduct a campus-wide campaign which will allow graduate-employees at the UoC to exercise their right to collectively bargain by casting their votes for or against unionization. The process of building a card campaign has three basic steps: getting our fellow workers to sign union cards, filing for a union election with the NLRB, and voting in the election.

The next few months will be crucial as we move forward and prepare to exercise our right to organize and collectively bargain. Now is the time to get involved and there are plenty of ways to do so! Email us, ask your Departmental Organizer how you can get involved, or consider becoming a Departmental Organizer yourself! And, please be sure to vote in the upcoming referendum on our affiliation – this vote will determine which national union, if any, GSU will work with in a potential card campaign!

If you would like to become a member, please do so here.

Let Graduate Employees Decide How to Manage Their Own Working Lives

Graduate Students United categorically denies the administration’s oft-repeated talking point that graduate employees are students first. We are from day one employees of this institution, as well as being students. All of our labor—research, writing, teaching, coordinating workshops, planning and attending conferences, etc.—produces value for the university. We receive compensation and benefits for the work that we do here: that is an employer-employee relationship. We think thou doth protest too much on this point, showing that the administration has ulterior motives in repeating this talking point ad nauseum. It is not difficult to discern what these motives are: under current labor law, graduate students at private universities are considered students and not employees, and we thus have no collective bargaining rights. It is clearly in the interests of the administration and the board of trustees that this status quo continue, and it is clear that they have done everything in their power to preserve the appearance that graduate employees are just students. We believe that the 19.5 hour cap is in place as another attempt to preserve this myth that we are students and not employees.

According to the University of Chicago Employee Handbook, certain employment benefits kick in for employees that work 20 hours or more per week. Is it just a coincidence that student employment is capped at 19.5 hours? We think not. If graduate employees were receiving employment benefits like PTO and paid vacation and sick time, it would be harder for the administration to maintain the myth that we are students and not employees. The administration belies their own position when they claim that “like faculty, PhD students must juggle multiple responsibilities related to their scholarship and teaching.”

We are glad that the administration is trying to be flexible about the 19.5 hour cap. But many problems remain. The policy is inherently unfair: many graduate employees have teaching requirements that are a part of their academic program, while others do not; some graduate employees have recourse to financial assistance from their families, while others do not; international students cannot seek employment outside of the university; student parents often need to work more to provide for their families, and so on. Leaving the decision of whether or not to allow students to exceed the 19.5 hour limit entirely in the hands of the Deans of Students is, in our view, a misguided and dangerous policy. It opens the door to unequal treatment of graduate employees, without any oversight, and without offering any form of recourse to grads who think that they have been treated unfairly. Without a clear policy to guide decisions, and without a system of oversight, decisions are too easily open to nepotism or punitive motives.

It is also misguided–and insulting–to assume that graduate employees need a policy like this to manage our time and our lives. By this point in our careers, it is perfectly within our power to balance our teaching, research, and other work on our own. Other universities explicitly recognize this fact, and treat their graduate employees like adults deserving of basic respect: at Harvard graduate employees can work 40 hours a week if they so choose; Brown and Cornell have recommendations, but they leave the decision up to the grads. Chicago should follow the lead of these ‘peer institutions’ and let us make our own decisions about our working lives.

Cut Administrative Salaries to Ensure Living Wages for Grad Employees

In their recent email announcing stipend increases and higher teaching wages, Provost Isaacs and Sian Beilock claim that it is part of the University’s mission to “ensure students can operate at the highest level.” Assuming that this is not mere rhetoric, but represents an actual and ongoing commitment of the administration, let’s consider what this would actually look like. First, a living wage, such that, for example, a single student can live comfortably in a one-bedroom apartment, or a student parent can live comfortably and provide for their children, without having to supplement their financial support from the University by finding other employment. The median rent for a one-bedroom in Hyde Park is roughly $1,000 a month, or $12,000 a year, minus other costs like electricity, internet, etc. The Federal government claims that affordable housing should not exceed 30% of annual income. Thirty percent of the new GAI level of support of $28,000 is $8,400, or $700 a month—well short of what it costs to live affordably in a one-bedroom, or even a studio apartment in Hyde Park. Base-level compensation, by these standards, should be at least $40,000 a year, and then tied to inflation. If the University wants to continue to use this rhetoric that we are students and not employees and should thus focus on our academic progress, then they should pay us sufficiently so that we can do so. We would be more than happy to focus on completing our dissertations if we weren’t constantly worried about how to pay the bills.
Second, affordable healthcare. Health costs are, and have been for the last several years, increasing at a rate that far exceeds increases in compensation. In 2008, when GSU was campaigning to push the university to pay for our premiums in the first place, the premiums for the USHIP plan were $590 a quarter. Now they are $1144 a quarter, a 94% increase since 2008. As opposed to this, from when GSU’s organising forced the administration to double TA wages to $3000 in 2008, they have now been increased by 33%. The Student Life Fee, most of which (roughly 77%) pays for Student Health and Counseling Services on campus, has increased by around 45% since 2008 when teaching wages were last increased. It is currently $1,089 a year, $1,375 a year if a student needs access over the summer. This year the deductible for the USHIP health plan increased 150% from $200 to $500 for in-network coverage, and 100% from $500 to $1,000 for out-of-network coverage. Hence, healthcare costs for a student that uses their plan and wants access to Health and Counseling Services throughout the year are nearly $2,000 (if not more), entirely offsetting the increase in GAI funding and increases in teaching wages. And this doesn’t even take into account dental and eye coverage. Given the existing state of financial precariousness for graduate employees, the increase in health costs are such that they will present a deterrent from seeking healthcare—hardly a state of being conducive to operating at the highest level as academics.
The situation is even more bleak for graduate employees post-GAI. Let’s say that one taught a stand-alone lecture course in all three quarters—a nearly impossible prospect, of course, but the best-case scenario in terms of compensation. At the new level of $6,000 per course, that would amount to an annual income of just $18,000. Affordable rent at this level would be a mere $450 a month. This means that advanced graduate students inevitably must seek other employment to make ends meet, increasingly taking away the time that is necessary to complete their degree. Again, if the administration is truly committed to ensuring that graduate employees “operate at the highest level,” then they should compensate us so as to make this possible. What would this look like? It would look like the Faculty Forward campaign of the Service Employee International Union’s call for compensation of 15K per course. In addition to the meagre pay, students in advanced residency are hit with AR tuition to the tune of nearly $2,400 a year. After year seven, they are required to pay for their own health care, meaning that if they wish to stay on the USHIP health plan, they must cough up roughly another $3,500 a year just to pay premiums. As it is, it is virtually structurally impossible for graduate employees in many doctoral programs to finish their degree in five or six years. The University, rather than addressing this structural problem, is trying to force advanced students out of their programs through financial attrition. This is wrong.
“The University, rather than addressing this structural problem, is trying to force advanced students out of their programs through financial attrition. This is wrong.”
The administration will say that this is pie-in-the-sky utopian thinking, disconnected from the pragmatic realities of running such an institution. We do not think it utopian to claim that graduate employees deserve to live as adults and have a decent standard of living, without having to take on crippling debt, or seek financial assistance from our families. This is simple economic justice. Here’s an idea: let’s cap all administrative salaries at $200,000 a year—which is roughly what U.S. congressmen and women make, and surely plenty of money for anyone to live very comfortably on. This money could then be used to increase compensation for graduate students and other employees. How much money would be saved? Well, the University of Chicago has around 20 key administrators (“administrators who make more than $150,000 and are designated by the IRS as ‘key employees’”), who take home on average about $900,000 a year. This is a total of roughly 18 million a year in administrative pay. If these salaries were capped at $200,000 a year, that would leave around 14 million dollars extra per year that could be used to increase pay for graduate students and other poorly paid employees. That would be a good starting point.
We are pleased to hear that the administration has committed to an ongoing dialogue with graduate employees about these issues. It is good that they seek feedback from the Grad Council. This, however, should not be used as an excuse to avoid or ignore feedback from other sources, including Graduate Students United. Grad Council is not a democratically elected, nor a representative body. They have no claim to representing the interests of graduate employees. Graduate Students United, on the other hand, has such a claim: we have over 600 members across all divisions. We regularly seek feedback from our members, and the graduate student body as a whole, on issues of concern through our member’s meetings, townhalls, surveys, and email correspondence. If the administration is truly committed to an open dialogue that takes seriously the concerns of graduate employees, then they must allow Graduate Students United to have a voice in that dialogue.

The Last Lactation Station

What’s been frustrating graduate students lately? If you read the Maroon, you’ll know the absence of private spaces to breastfeed is on the list. As the article explains, “The complaints stem from the fact that the majority of lactation stations on campus are located in public spaces that have a lounge or in handicapped bathrooms. In addition, several of the lactation stations were reported as non-operational by graduate student parents.”

The absence of private spaces on campus for nursing parents to breastfeed or pump milk is a growing embarrassment for the university, and as the article points out, it also happens to be a violation of federal law. That may be one reason why the university a few years ago put together this list of lactation stations to include among its “Resources for Graduate Parents.” But the list appears to have been somewhat hastily composed and not adequately vetted — a wonderful vision that has yet to be matched with the kind of institutional support needed to make it a reality.

After the Maroon article came out last Friday, one intrepid student parent and GSU member decided to go on an expedition to complete her tour of the listed lactation facilities by visiting the “lactation station” identified on the list as Room 103 in Beecher Hall. Here’s what she found:

Beecher Lactation room

I just went and checked the last “lactation station” from the list. Most are locking bathrooms and/or public lounges, but this one is a locked asbestos-containing closet.





Just try expressing breastmilk under those conditions! (The sign reads: “B103 / Mechanical Room / DANGER / Thermal systems in this mechanical room contain asbestos / Avoid creating dust and breathing asbestos fibers / Cancer and lung disease hazard / Please contact Safety and Environmental Affairs at 702-9999 before disturbing materials in this area.”)

For an idea of what the U of C can aspire to, check out the list of Lactation/Personal Care Rooms available at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Not only is there a map, but the rooms are rated by a five-star system, ranging from “available for use but not recommended” (these are mostly bathrooms) to “designed with nursing mothers in mind.”

Update (11/5/13): Today’s issue of Inside Higher Ed has a reported article on the lack of places to pump on the University of Chicago campus (“A Room of One’s Own,” 11/5/2013). The article quotes a University of Chicago spokeswoman with the following statement:

We are grateful that a student alerted us that some places on this list were substandard as lactation stations, and have been working with graduate student parents and the University Deans of Students on updating this list over the last month. Leaders of Graduate Student Affairs are also working with graduate student parents to identify additional places on campus that could be used as lactation stations.

That’s an encouraging start. But let’s be clear: the challenge here is not to identify existing places to nurse on campus; it’s to create them. If there’s one thing we’ve learned so far, it’s that most of the spots already “identified” as lactation stations are not actually suitable for this purpose, and “additional places” on campus are unlikely to do the trick without at least a few modifications. What we need are dedicated spaces and equipment to make pumping easier for nursing parents.

This will take some time and money — i.e., university resources — to get right. But if the University of Michigan can do it, there’s no reason we can’t give it a try down here in Hyde Park. We look forward to working with administrators to get there, and we’ll keep folks posted on our progress.