Frequently Asked Questions

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Part 1: Why A Union?

What is GSU?

Graduate Students United (GSU) is an independent organization of graduate student workers at the University of Chicago. We formed in the spring of 2007 to create a union to advocate for higher wages, better health care, and better work conditions for graduate students. A graduate student union is a democratic organization of graduate student-workers that represents the interests of graduate students as university employees, and which collectively negotiates over employment conditions like pay, health insurance, and protections against harassment.

GSU differs from organizations for graduate students administered by the university such as the Graduate Council and Student Government, most of which serve in an advisory capacity to administrators. While these groups can serve an important function in advocating for student needs on campus, GSU was founded to meet the need for an independent voice for graduate students. Many members of GSU are active in these advisory groups, yet experience has shown us the need for an autonomous, self-governing body to represent our interests as university employees, and to advocate for higher wages and access to the resources we need to thrive as scholars.

Graduate employees at many public universities have long enjoyed the benefits of strong unions (for example, at the University of Illinois, Chicago , University of Michigan , and Wisconsin-Madison ). We look forward to joining our unionized peers in private universities at NYU and Columbia Harvard, the New School, Brown and Georgetown, all of whom have bargained contracts with their administrations, along with the many others who are building campaigns right now.

What has GSU won for graduate workers?

Since 2007, GSU has won a number of significant improvements in graduate student life at the University of Chicago, including:

  1. yearly stipend increases for doctoral students across divisions;
  2. coverage of the Student Services Fee as part of all doctoral funding packages beginning in Autumn 2022;
  3. the elimination of Advanced Residency tuition;
  4. improvements to the university’s parental leave policy for graduate students, including the right to retain their student status (and hence visa status, health insurance, and access to university facilities);
  5. In 2008:
    – a doubling of TA salaries, from $1500 to $3000 per quarter;
    – a substantial increase in lecturer salaries, from $3500 to $5000 per quarter;
  6. better standards of care at the U of C Student Wellness Center.
Who runs the union?

We do. GSU was founded in 2007 by graduate students, and it continues to be run by graduate students. To learn more about our governing structure, please visit our Structure & Elected Officers page.

Why do we need a union?

A union gives us the power and structure to push for changes that are important to graduate workers at UChicago. It enables us to bargain with the university and protect the rights of graduate students in a way that would be impossible if we weren’t working collectively. It provides graduate workers with a democratic say in their working and learning conditions and holds the university accountable, enshrining our compensation and work expectations in a legally enforceable contract and allowing workers with recourse through both legal enforcement and collective action when those agreements are not adhered to. It allows graduate workers to use our collective strength to negotiate directly with the university on issues of compensation, housing affordability, insurance and benefits, workplace training and safety, and protections against exploitation and harassment.

Part 2: Formal Recognition and Signing a Union Card

Why isn’t GSU recognized by the University?

GSU overwhelmingly won a union-recognition election in October 2017. However, the University refused to recognize the results of our election, hoping that a conservative National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) dominated by Trump appointees would overturn the legal ruling that allowed graduate workers at private universities to unionize. In order to prevent that from happening, we withdrew our legal petition from the Labor Relations Board and instead called on the University to voluntarily recognize the results of our democratic election. They continued to refuse, and with our legal options limited, GSU pivoted toward advocating for immediate material improvements for graduate workers while monitoring the legal labor landscape in the U.S. With Biden appointees holding a majority on the NLRB as of fall 2021, GSU is now pursuing legal union recognition.

What does a campaign for union recognition entail?

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling in Summer 2016 recognizes that graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities are legally entitled to collective bargaining rights.

To bargain a contract, graduate student unions need to hold a union-recognition election administered by the regional Labor Relations Board. In order to hold the election, the union needs to have a sizable portion of their bargaining unit sign authorization cards.

If at least 30% of graduate workers sign union cards, we can ask the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to conduct a secret ballot election to determine whether GSU should become the union for all graduate workers at UChicago. If more than 50% of graduate workers sign cards, we can ask the university to voluntarily recognize GSU without an election.

What does it mean to sign a card?

Signing a union card means that you would like to form a union and that in the future we want to see our wages, benefits, and working conditions bargained collectively through our union’s elected bargaining committee. Signing a union card does not require participation in union events, and we will not pay dues until a formal contract is negotiated with the Administration and approved through a democratic vote.

Signing a union card means you support the union. Signing a card means that you stand with your colleagues for financial security, affordable housing, equal opportunities for international students, and a safe and equitable working environment for all. Signing a card gives you the right to run for and vote on your negotiating committee, and to participate in the process of drafting and voting on proposals for our union contract. At this stage, we consider expressing this type of support for forming the union and joining the union as functionally the same, but we still need formal recognition in order to negotiate a contract. If a majority of graduate students sign a union card, the Administration can choose to voluntarily recognize our union and begin the contract negotiation process.

We hope to convince the Administration to voluntarily recognize our union after we sign up a majority of grad workers on union cards. If the Administration chooses not to voluntarily recognize our union, we will submit our cards to the National Labor Relations Board and request an official election to be formally recognized as a union.

How do I sign a card?

You can sign a union card by clicking here. This is a legal document and should be completed accurately. You must fill out all fields listed. Print clearly your name (as listed on your official identification documents) and date accurately. Your mailing address is required for the National Labor Relations Board to mail you official ballots. Your employer is The University of Chicago. You may list your Job Title as Research Assistant, Teaching Assistant, or Graduate Researcher. Your phone number and email addresses – both your UChicago address and non-UChicago address – must be listed. Once you print your name, you are set – you do not need to worry about the Received by field!

To see an example union card, click here.

How do we bargain a contract?

After the university recognizes our union and agrees to bargain, the following steps will happen. 

  1. We elect a bargaining committee from amongst our members to represent us in contract negotiations.
    We get to collectively decide the size and composition of the bargaining committee when we revise our bylaws and draft our charter as a union. One common approach is to provide roughly proportional representation for the different divisions and programs that members belong to, while keeping it to a manageable size.
  2. A bargaining survey shall be circulated and a members’ meeting shall determine/rank their priorities, and this process sets the priorities for the bargaining team.        
  3. Our bargaining committee meets with university representatives to negotiate the contract.
  4. Once our bargaining committee is satisfied with the language of the proposed contract, GSU members vote on whether to ratify it.
    – In addition to having our say through the elected bargaining committee, there is also the option/possibility of having open bargaining, allowing members outside of the bargaining team to observe bargaining. Whether we have open bargaining or not has be mutually agreed upon by both the union and management when establishing ground rules for the contract negotiations. (Source: Harvard Grad Union FAQ)
  5. If GSU members vote not to ratify it, our bargaining committee goes back to the bargaining table with the University and tries again.
  6. Once a proposed contract meets with GSU members’ approval by a majority vote, it goes into effect, and all employees reap the benefits; a union exists to provide employees with a democratic voice at the workplace – one of its chief missions would now be to enforce the contract, including worker grievances against the employer.

Part 3: Know Your Rights

Is there a chance that unionizing will lower some students’ stipends to match that of other departments?

No. A contract sets salary floors, not ceilings, and departments can and do pay above any minimum salary established in the collective bargaining agreement (see the contracts at UWashington or NYU). GSU has no desire to lower anyone’s pay in order to equalize salaries across the university. In fact, many contracts have a ‘Maintenance of Benefits’ clause, which states that no graduate employee will earn less in pay or benefits under the contract than they did before. Typically, percentage increases in the contract will apply even if you earn above the wage floor.

Are international students allowed to unionize?

Yes, international student-workers absolutely have the same rights as US citizens to organize and support unionization efforts. It is illegal for any employer to punish workers for participating in workplace organizing. Additionally, there are no effects on visa or immigration status due to union participation or membership. International grad workers have been participating in and leading graduate union organizing for over a half-century now, and no one has brought forward cases of any complication arising from their status as an international student and union organizer or member.

Further, no one will be taking these actions on their own. The union is built on broad, public, majority support. This gives us both significant collective power and protection in numbers. We will not stand for any grad worker facing retaliation for building a union with their co-workers. If you are interested in reading more, we highly recommend this FAQ from our peers at Brown University.

Would a union change what is unique about each department?

Our goal as union members isn’t to conform every department and field to one exact way of operating. Rather, we want to be able to set baseline standards and expectations–and departmental administrators and faculty can figure out the best ways to meet them! Plus, it’s important to note that some things–like parental leave, dental and vision insurance, grievance policies, and workers’ compensation–simply can’t be resolved at the department level. We don’t think a one-size-fits-all approach would work either. That’s why it’s so important that we talk to everyone and have folks involved from every field. (Source: Cornell Grad Union FAQ)

Funding for my research assistantship comes from a grant, so how could we negotiate over that?

Currently, the University of Chicago determines RA pay rates unilaterally, and those rates – as well as projected increases – are factored into grant proposals to agencies like NIH, NSF, DOD, etc. With collective bargaining, we would negotiate as equals with the University of Chicago for improvements to our pay rates. RAs at UMASS and the University of Washington, as well as postdocs at the University of California, have negotiated guaranteed annual increases to their pay rates through collective bargaining. (Source: Columbia Grad Union FAQ.)

Once we have a contract, will union representatives become mediators between grads and their departments?

Contracts typically encourage informal resolution of problems before involving union representatives as moderators. If disputes or alleged violations of the contract cannot be solved informally, then an individual RA or TA would have the option of involving the union or not. If a graduate student chooses to bring a grievance to the union then it can be put into writing and, taken to a neutral arbitrator to decide whether the University violated the contract.

What will my faculty advisor think if I join the union?

Any retaliation for union membership or activity is unlawful. Many, many faculty have expressed both privately and publicly that they support graduate student efforts to unionize. Many also appreciate the role that GSU plays as a voice for student and faculty interests on campus at a time when faculty face increasing pressure to avoid controversial positions. Faculty and students share many of the same concerns and interests: we want to thrive as scholars and workers on campus, to complete our degrees on schedule, and to go on to the careers we’ve been preparing for. GSU’s fiscal and administrative independence from the university enables us to speak openly and freely on issues of concern to us. Some faculty members may be unfamiliar with GSU and its aims, but many more know us well and view us as allies in making the university a better place. For example, through the University of Chicago Labor Council, we work with other workers and unions on campus, including the American Association of University Professors and Faculty Forward, with the united goal of improving higher education and campus working conditions for all.

That said, your faculty advisor doesn’t need to know whether you signed a card. GSU takes extensive measures to protect the confidentiality of its members: our membership list is stored on non-university servers, and most of our communication takes place off university servers as well

Will the union force me to go on strike?

Absolutely not. If the Administration bargains with us in good faith, we will never have to go on strike. In fact, part of the motivation for signing a majority of graduate students on union cards is that this show of strength could encourage the Administration to recognize our union without contest. In that case, we would never have to go on strike; in fact, half of private-university graduate student unions have never had to authorize a strike.

That said, our labor is our most powerful bargaining chip. We generate immense value for our university through our research, teaching, and other activities. Withholding that labor sends a powerful message. Our university works because we do. In addition, not all strikes are the same, and specific strikes around our teaching and service, rather than research activities, can be important tools for us to demonstrate how much labor we put into the Institute.

In all cases, a decision to strike is not made lightly. A strike requires a supermajority vote of all grad workers (this is called a strike authorization vote). This means a supermajority of graduate workers will have decided that the Administration is not negotiating fairly with our union and are ready to strike. Our union will never force any worker to go on strike, but if we decide to strike, our strike is most powerful when we stand united.

How can the union help me with a workplace issue or grievance?

GSU is not yet formally recognized by the University as a labor union, and so we are unable to institute a formal grievance process. However, we can help you with a workplace issue or grievance by:

  1. Sharing the union’s knowledge of precedents and University policies with you;
  2. Advocating for you in whatever capacity best fits your situation (e.g., attending a meeting with you, helping you draft an email to an administrator, connecting you with other graduate workers in similar situations, providing you with training and resources to organize your department, etc.);
  3. Organizing direct action to address the issue;
  4. Providing you with mutual aid via our Hardship Fund.

Currently, GSU’s power lies in the collective knowledge and experience our members have amassed in their time as student workers, and in our unwavering commitment to standing in solidarity with all workers facing unjust or otherwise difficult working conditions.

Upon negotiating a contract, GSU will have even more power to redress grievances. Union contracts typically include a grievance procedure, which provides due process to a member (or the union as an organization) if the contract is violated. Most contracts allow for unresolved grievances to be taken to an outside neutral arbitrator, whose decision is legally binding. For more examples of how a fair and effective grievance procedure can work after a contract is ratified, you can check out highlights of how graduate employees at the University of Washington have successfully enforced their rights under the Union contract on issues ranging from pregnancy discrimination and tuition/fee waivers to payment and health and safety issues.

Does the union address other issues on campus?

In short: yes. While a union generally encourages its members to look at issues through the lens of labor as a method of building collective power and strength, we believe in labor organizing that also adopts anti-racist, abolitionist, feminist, and other approaches. Our union therefore organizes around a range of issues, adapting to the needs of our members and our surrounding community. Check out our Get Involved page for more information on our committees and working groups.

What have other graduate student-worker unions negotiated through their contracts?

Grad worker unions across the country have negotiated significant benefits and rights across several areas, including diversity and inclusion, compensation, work expectations, protections against retaliation, fairer grievance procedures, and international student protections. Some specific examples of negotiated contract items include:

  • Requirements of a neutral arbitrator during disputes
  • Defined grievance procedures for harassment or discrimination
  • Required diversity trainings for faculty and staff
  • Stipend increases with annual raises and September pay advances
  • Medical and dental insurance with more coverage
  • Paid sick days and bereavement leave
  • Longer and more flexible medical/parental leave
  • Reduced pricing or reimbursements for parking, public transit, and/or bicycles
  • Guaranteed safe working conditions following OSHA standards
  • Retaliation protection

Our sibling union at MIT has documented union wins for unionized graduate workers.

Part 4: Membership & Dues

Who can be a member of GSU? Does signing up to be a member mean that I have to pay dues?

GSU is open to all graduate students. This includes graduates students across all divisions, in both PhD and Masters programs, and graduate students with and without teaching positions.

We will only ask members to pay dues after we have won a contract securing a significant pay increase. For now, we are asking members to contribute to voluntary dues which allow us to rent office space, pay for supplies and tech services, provide food and refreshments for events, and (hopefully soon) hire part-time staff. You can sign-up to pay voluntary dues at any level you are able to contribute here.

Approximately how much would the union dues cost?

The UE membership dues are 1.44% of a worker’s pay.

Are they worth it?

The best way to judge is to look at the success of other grad student unions at similar universities. At NYU, where union dues are at 2 percent, they negotiated an annual pay increase of 2.25 to 2.5 percent per year over the course of five years, plus more job security, payment for required trainings, free dental and vision care, affordable childcare, and the abolition of matriculation fees.

In another example, Columbia University’s most recent contract includes a retroactive pay increase of no less than 4% for the previous academic year, plus a 2% bonus to cover union dues, and subsequent minimum 3% increases for the remaining years of the contract. In short, even after dues, grad workers saw more take-home pay (and much better benefits) than before.

Will all of us be required to be members of the Union and pay dues or fees?

No one can be required to become a member of the Union, in any circumstance. In most contracts, since everyone in the bargaining unit must receive all of the benefits of the contract, non-members are generally required to pay a comparable “agency” fee, often described as a “fair share” fee, so the cost of representation is shared equally. Whether we do this at UChicago would be something we decide as part of our bargaining agenda and would be subject to negotiation with the administration.

Most graduate worker unions have such a provision in the contract because it means we have more power and more resources available to fight for the best possible contracts with the administration.

(Source: Columbia Grad Union FAQ.)

Is there a chance that high dues would cancel out any benefits/raises we receive from a contract?

The contract is ratified by a democratic process, and it is unlikely that any membership would vote for a contract that specifies a dues amount higher than the raises and benefits it guarantees. The priorities of bargaining are set by an elected bargaining committee, which receives further feedback from the membership through bargaining questionnaires, meetings, and wide-ranging discussions. Ultimately, the entire membership votes to accept the proposed contract, or may choose to refuse it and send the bargaining committee back to the bargaining table.

Part 5: Affiliation with United Electrical (UE)

Is GSU affiliated with a parent union?

GSU affiliated with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) on August 25, 2022 at a General Members meeting. When a group of workers wants to form a union, they nearly always affiliate with an existing union for financial, legal, and organizational assistance. In our case, we decided to affiliate with UE based on a democratic vote, and have received assistance from them to build the infrastructure we needed to speak with every grad worker. Our union is an autonomous local chapter of UE. They provide us with support and resources, but we ultimately hold the power to make decisions about what our union does.

Our union was started by, is made up of, and is run by rank-and-file grad workers. That said, we formed a partnership with our national affiliate because we believe they offer us substantial support and solidarity. The broader labor movement connects us to grad workers at other campuses, as well as dining hall workers, custodians, researchers —not to mention teachers, autoworkers, and electricians!

Why did we affiliate with UE?

In June 2020, GSU voted to disaffiliate with American Federation of Teachers. After thorough research, grad workers building our unionization campaign democratically voted to affiliate with UE. There were many reasons why we chose to affiliate with UE, but three were most important:

UE is committed to rank-and-file organizing. A rank-and-file union is run by its members, and as a local chapter of UE, our local union will have complete autonomy to run our union. In fact, this rank-and-file structure is why we are so confident in our independence within this partnership!

UE emphasizes issue-oriented unionization campaigns. Our issue-oriented campaign has allowed us to fight for near-term improvements in the lives of grad workers as we build our union. These campaigns taught us about the limits of grad worker activism, but even more importantly, our issue campaigns allowed us to learn about the issues affecting grad workers, better preparing us to build a union that represents us all.

UE is willing to fight hard battles. We know that the Administration has the resources to fight grad worker unionization. UE has experience supporting pre-majority graduate student unions in states that are particularly hostile to labor: although North Carolina has the second-lowest union density in the country (only South Carolina is lower), UE has supported grad workers at both the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University. UE is also affiliated with graduate student unions at the University of Iowa, the College of William and Mary, Indiana University, and the University of New Mexico. In addition, UE’s organizing model is focused on issues rather than elections, allowing us to build lasting strength as we work to speak to every grad worker about their life in graduate school.

Does UE actually deliver wins for workers?

Yes! UE has a track record of building strong unions that achieve higher than average gains for workers. For example, the average wage increase in new UE contracts was 3.3% (from internal data), above the national average of 3.1%. Grad workers at Indiana University (IGWC-UE) have won raises of almost 50% this year in stipend increases and fee cancellation following their strike. This is why employers like UChicago try so hard to keep their employees from organizing into UE. They do not want to deal with an organization led by workers that is willing to fight as hard as possible to improve working conditions.

Does UE have the financial and organizational strength to support GSU? They don’t appear as wealthy as some other unions.

There are considerations other than raw financial assets when thinking about the ability or willingness of a national union to support our organizing efforts. We are choosing an organizational partner, not an investment portfolio. And with UE, we get significantly more local control, a member-led and democratic organization, and a national union that doesn’t run away from a tough fight.

UE is focused on spending its members’ dues on supporting the interests of the members and expanding to new organizing for workers who want to join with UE, not just sitting on a pile of cash like UChicago’s $12 billion endowment. UE’s assets per member are similar to those other strong, fighting unions have, like National Nurses United, Association of Flight Attendants, and the American Federation of Teachers, all of which have been at the forefront of pushing the labor movement forward in recent years alongside UE.

We, grad workers at UChicago, will be the ones who ultimately decide when and how to engage with UChicago when we work with UE, but we will also be the main reason at the end of the day why we win or lose a strong union with an engaged membership. UE can help give us the tools, but it is up to us to get organized and make our lives better, something thousands of our co-workers are already doing by singing their union cards in support of us having that collective say in our research conditions.

Where can I learn more about UE?

Visit UE’s website, www.ueunion.org or reach out to your department organizer who can put you in touch with one of our UE staff!