Exciting News for Other Grad Unions, CARES Act Funds, and Getting Involved This Summer!

Congratulations to our fellow graduate workers at Harvard and Brown!

Earlier this week, HGSU-UAW, the union of graduate workers at Harvard University, reached the end of a 19-month bargaining process to achieve a tentative agreement on a contract with their administration. They are currently in the process of their ratification vote! Read more at The Harvard Crimson.
This exciting news comes shortly after SUGSE, Brown University’s graduate student union, won their own contract, which they ratified earlier this week!
This is exciting news all around, and a huge congratulations on these two monumental wins for graduate workers everywhere. But the fight is not over, graduate workers across the United States (including at UChicago) work without their rights recognized or protected by their administrations. This is especially unjust, amidst a global pandemic and increasing austerity at most universities. Temporary band-aids are not enough. We need union organization and labor contracts to protect our rights as workers and students. Read this email to figure out how to get involved with GSU’s fight.

CARES Act Funds – and who’s eligible to them? 

On June 4th, the University announced that it accepted $6.2 million it was awarded by the Department of Education, from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act’s established Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). This announcement came after much deliberation, since the awarding of the funds to the university on April 9th

Accepting the funds has proven politically controversial for elite higher ed institutions, with many deciding not to accept the federal funds (e.g., Northwestern, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Duke, to name a few), and others, like Cornell University, announcing that they would allocate the entire funding they receive to assist students, and not just 50% as the Act requires. The University of Chicago followed suit with the latter, after almost two months of consideration.

GSU is commending any funding that goes to aid students (eligible students may receive up to $2500), but we are concerned about several aspects of the process, including its invitation-only nature, its non-transparency, and the eligibility criteria that the University posed on top of the original criteria stipulated by the CARES Act: According to the university policy, only students with a valid Free Application for Federal Students Aid (FAFSA) on file are eligible to the funds, thus narrowing down the eligible population, especially among graduate students. Moreover, the FAFSA should have been on file as of May 15, although the University announced this policy only on June 4th, meaning that if you hadn’t applied before their announcement, it was already too late! 

GSU is trying to assess the extent to which these funds have been made available to graduate student workers, and how many otherwise eligible students could not apply due to the process and the conditions that the university designed.

Please take a minute of your time and fill in this short questionnaire!

Get Involved! Get (Re)Engaged! 

This is our first newsletter as an independent union (Yay!!!), since our affiliation vote. And we have exciting times ahead! In the next few weeks, we will develop our shared vision for GSU as an independent union. Our members are invited and encouraged to express their voice and take part in this process – in various ways! Stay tuned for an announcement on an upcoming GMM, and other avenues to participate in shaping GSU vision.

In the meantime, members are encouraged and more than welcome to join and attend our ongoing meetings. There are currently four different committees that members can attend and get involved with:

Stewards Council/Organizing Committee – Meets every Monday at 6:00PM.  Stewards are elected by membership to represent their department in the union.  There are currently openings for stewards in almost every department and this meeting is open to all members. This is a place where organizers can hear from each other and strategize going forward.  If you are interested in becoming a steward either email us or find the Zoom link in your GSU newsletter!

Steering Committee – Meets every Tuesday at 6:00PM. Steering committee is also elected by membership and is responsible for the day-to-day responsibilities of the union including grievances, overall strategy, finances, endorsements, etc. We currently have vacant positions for divisional representatives in PSD, BSD, SSA, and the Divinity School. We also have openings for communications secretary and financial secretary. If any of these positions sound interesting, feel free to email us, or find the Zoom link in your GSU newsletter.

FORCe (Funding Overhaul Research Committee) – Meets every Wednesday at 6:00PM.  FORCe was formed in response to the funding overhaul announced earlier this year and has since been the driving force behind actions in our union. In FORCe’s short lifespan we have already organized three successful actions:

Funding overhaul petition
COVID-19 petition
June 3rd’s walkout/teach-in

We are currently deciding what kind of actions we want to take over the summer and what we want next Fall to look like. To get involved with FORCe please email us, or find the Zoom link on the GSU newsletter.

Mutual Aid Committee – Meets every Thursday at 5:30PM.  Our mutual aid committee is our newest committee which focuses on building membership and community solidarity through mutual aid. During our June 3rd action, members of the mutual aid committee bought and collected food to bring to local food pantries. We are compiling information on how to get involved in the community, protests to attend, how to attend protests safely, and more resources for GSU members to more easily get involved with the Chicago and South Side community. We have worked with the University of Chicago Labor Council (UCLC) to provide protest health and safety training which can be found on their Twitter here.  If you are interested in getting more information please email us or find the Zoom link on the GSU newsletter.

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

Funding overhaul petition, COVID-19 relief campaign in the news, and Mutual Aid Open House

Sign the Funding Overhaul Petition Today!

Last year, on May 1, 2019, GSU members joined with nurses, library staff, administrative and custodial workers, and other members of the UChicago Labor Council to stage a march and rally in the quad in honor of International Workers Day. This year, the pandemic and social distancing measures have made such actions impossible—but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to advocate for our rights as grad workers. On Friday, May 1, 2020, we have submitted an online version of our funding overhaul petition to the Provost’s office (Note: you can still sign this petition after 5/1).

GSU in the News!

On campus and nationally, GSU’s organizing is earning media attention. Late last week, the Chicago Maroon reported on our calls for relief during the current crisis, as research is halted, teaching and parenting work increases, and we all deal with the anxiety and stress—and for some of us, grief and loss—of a global pandemic.

That was followed by an article this week in Vox. While focused largely on campaigns for tuition relief (including here at UChicago), this piece also highlighted GSU’s calls for extended funding and deadline flexibility. A GSU representative particularly pointed to the impact on grad workers supporting families, as well as international students facing costs and uncertainty around visas.

Both articles centered on the demands in our Covid-19 relief petition, which you can sign today, and share with colleagues! It’s easy to find at http://bit.ly/GSUcovid.

Mutual Aid Open House

In this moment of crisis, precarity, overwork, and deep, deep uncertainty, it is crucial to build practices of solidarity and care in our community. To this end, the GSU Mutual Aid Committee is hosting a Zoom Open House next Thursday, May 7th, at 5:30pm. At this event, members of the committee will briefly introduce the history and basics of mutual aid, present on what they believe are the immediate needs of GSU members (gleaned from our last two member surveys and their experiences) and will facilitate break-out groups to start coordinating mutual aid actions. These actions can include mental health support, Covid support-check-ins, grocery deliveries, childcare support, peer support and peer mentoring, food delivery and food solidarity actions, mutual aid relief funds, and many, many more.

If you have felt alone and would like some support, please attend and tell us about what you need and we will do what we can to get it to you. You are not alone. If you have felt restless and have been looking for concrete ways to get involved in helping others in our community, please attend and join us!

Join us on the call next Thursday, and write to us at gsu@riseup.net to find out more and get involved!

Zoom Info:
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/85217900932

Meeting ID: 852 1790 0932

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Transcript Changes, NLRB Rebuttals, and Healthcare

Dean’s Response to Transcript Changes

Two weeks ago week, several of our members in Humanities were concerned to find that new courses with “PTPT” call numbers had been added to their transcripts during quarters they worked as TAs or lecturers. After the changes were pointed out on social media, the Humanities Dean of Students, Shea Wolfe, sent an email to the division explaining that the PTPT “courses” were an “unintended consequence” of an attempt to note our teaching in the University’s Academic Information System and would be removed. While we’re relieved that our altered academic records will be corrected, the Dean’s message does not allay concerns about the University’s repeated attempts to redefine our work as job training that solely benefits us—the same argument that the University has been making since we held our election in 2017.

Submit NLRB Rebuttals

The period to submit comments for a proposed change to NLRB rules ended last week, but that doesn’t mean the chance to make your voice heard has passed. Over 13,000 comments have been published and are available for rebuttal until Friday, February 28. Just like during the original comment period, AFT has created a web portal where you can submit rebuttals at https://aftacademics.org/weareworkers/. While this page looks similar to the one where you may have previously submitted an NLRB comment, this is a different part of the commenting process, so be sure to write a rebuttal even if you already submitted an original comment!

Revisiting the Issues: Healthcare

It’s week four of the quarter, and we’re talking about healthcare! Two years after our bargaining survey, which identified major healthcare issues facing our members, the administration has made no effort to improve conditions.

Most of our members don’t have vision or dental insurance because it’s not paid for as part of our funding packages and costs are too high for graduate workers to afford on our own. And the insurance that we do have is woefully inadequate: amid steadily rising premiums and deductibles, members have told stories of inaccessibility, denied coverage, and dissatisfaction. Prenatal and birth care is often denied or poorly covered, and dependent coverage is expensive.

As graduate workers, we have different needs than undergraduates, and USHIP just doesn’t cover it. If the University administration were serious about improving the lives of grads on campus, they would agree to bargain with our union on the issues like healthcare that matter to us.

Labor Beat Covers GSU’s Pre-Election Rally and Victory in Union-Recognition Elections on Oct 17-18

Labor Beat, a non-profit CAN TV Community Partner based in Chicago, IL, recently published a video on their YouTube channel covering our pre-election rally and victory in the union-recognition election at the University of Chicago on October 17-18.

The video includes an interview with Chaz Lee and Daniela Palmer, members of GSU and graduate employees in Music and Evolutionary Biology, respectively. In addition, the video includes scenes and some of the speeches by the speakers at our rally on Oct 16:

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.
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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.
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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.
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“The University, rather than addressing this structural problem, is trying to force advanced students out of their programs through financial attrition. This is wrong.”
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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.
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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.