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Part 1: Why A Union?
What is GSU?
Graduate Students United is an independent organization of graduate students at the University of Chicago. We were formed in the spring of 2007 to advocate for graduate students, including higher wages, better health care, and better work conditions. (For more on what we’ve accomplished, please visit our History page.) We represent RA’s, TA’s, CA’s, language assistants, writing interns, lecturers and workshop coordinators in the Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, Social Sciences, Humanities and Divinity School. We are affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).
Who runs the union?
We do. GSU was founded ten years ago by graduate students, and it continues to be run by graduate students, in accordance with our bylaws. We are affiliation with AFT, a union with a reputation for respecting the independence of its locals, meaning that our members clearly value our autonomy as an organization. Affiliation with a national union means access to more resources, including legal counsel and organizing assistance.
What does a campaign for union recognition entail?
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling in Summer 2016 recognizes that as graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities we are legally entitled to collective bargaining rights. Without collective bargaining rights the university can unilaterally make decisions that shape our living and working conditions – when we bargain we gain a seat at the table and a say in how things work.
Within the framework provided by the NLRB, to bargain a contract we had to file for a union-recognition election with the regional Labor Relations Board, and for this we need a sizable portion of our bargaining unit to sign authorization cards. From Fall 2016 to May 2017, we collected signed authorization cards from prospective members of the bargaining unit and subsequently filed for a union-recognition election with the NLRB on May 8, 2017.
The Regional Director of the NLRB ruled on August 8, 2017 that a vote on union representation is to take place October 17 and 18, on the UChicago campus, for our bargaining unit. Despite appeals from the university against our legal right to unionize, we held an election as scheduled and voted 1103-479 in favor of union representation. Despite the results of our election, the university refused to begin bargaining with us.
Subsequent political changes to the makeup of the NLRB forced us to vote on pulling our petition with the NLRB, which we did in the Winter of 2018. Since pulling our petition, we have continued to seek voluntary recognition from the University of Chicago so that we can begin bargaining a contract.
How do we bargain a contract?
After the university recognizes our union and agrees to bargain, the following steps will happen.
- We elect a bargaining committee from amongst our members to represent us in contract negotiations.
- 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.
- Our bargaining committee meets with university representatives to negotiate the contract.
- Once our bargaining committee is satisfied with the language of the proposed contract, GSU members vote on whether to ratify it.
- If GSU members vote not to ratify it, our bargaining committee goes back to the bargaining table with the University and tries again.
- 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.
Who represents us in the bargaining committee?
We’ll elect our representatives on the committee in a union-wide election. We also 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. For example, the bargaining committee at the University of Connecticut had six members: one each from Engineering, Humanities, Social Sciences and Education, and two from the Sciences.
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)
What universities have graduate employee unions?
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 many others who are building campaigns right now.
How is GSU different from other graduate student groups on campus?
Alongside GSU, which is an organisation led by graduate students in collaboration with our affiliates (AFT/IFT/AAUP), there are a number of organizations for graduate students administered by the university. These include the Graduate Council, a division of Student Government, as well as a number of other groups for students in each school or division. Most of these groups meet on a bi-weekly or monthly basis and serve in an advisory capacity to administrators, or else they are tasked with the distribution of funds from the Student Life Fee allocated for social events.
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, and GSU has collaborated with the Graduate Council on issues like access to healthcare, childcare and parental leave, as well as efforts to lower student fees. 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. Unlike all other student organizations, the university would be legally obligated to bargain with a recognized graduate employee union, as opposed to offering recommendations that administrators can chose to ignore.
What has GSU achieved so far?
Since it was founded in 2007, GSU has won a number of significant improvements in graduate student life at the University of Chicago, including:
- a doubling of TA salaries, from $1500 to $3000 per quarter, in 2008, following a rally, an “apple action” and more;
- a substantial increase in lecturer salaries, from $3500 to $5000;
- a freeze in Advanced Residency tuition hikes since 2010;
- better standards of care at the U of C Student Care Center;
- 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).
- Due to grad employee organizing, stipends for SSA doctoral students matched the broader Graduate Aid Initiative (GAI) standard in 2014, jumping from $18,000/year to $26,000/year. Grad workers on the GAI received another $1,000 raise in 2018.
In addition to these concrete improvements, GSU has played an important role in bringing attention to graduate student concerns on campus. We have provided public forums for student voices on major university policy questions, such as health care, child care, and teaching pay and availability. We will continue to push for a contract, which will provide the most transparency and democratic voice to graduate students regarding their working conditions, and will solidify and preserve the progress we have already made.
Part 2: What Can We Gain with a Recognized Union?
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. The university already faces competition from other top research institutions in attracting students in certain fields; the upward pressure on stipends in certain fields will only be strengthened with the power of collective bargaining.
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. We’re building this union from the ground up, so this is an ideal time to get involved in shaping it. (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?
That is not how grievance procedures work under a union contract. In fact, contracts typically encourage informal resolution of problems before putting them into the formal grievance procedure.
If there were a dispute, or an alleged violation of the contract, an individual RA or TA would have the option of involving the union or not. If you talk to people at the University of Washington, for example, you’ll hear that they don’t need to file with their union in order to request vacation time under the contract or to ask to leave early one day for a family commitment. They talk directly to their PIs and advisers just like we do at UofC. The difference is, if there is a problem, they have the option of involving a union representative to help resolve it. Normally, that effort to resolve the problem is done informally. The language at the University of Washington is instructive. Article 8 of their contract says “The parties support the resolution of problems at the lowest possible level and to that end encourage informal discussions to resolve problems without the grievance procedure. Prior to initiating a grievance, the aggrieved party is encouraged to discuss the matter with the immediate supervisor. If requested, a Union representative may be involved in the discussion. Resolutions from pre-grievance discussions, although final, shall not be precedential.” And if it is not resolved informally, it can be put into writing and, ultimately, taken to a neutral arbitrator to decide whether the University violated the contract. But the decision to take these steps is in the hands of the individual RA or TA. (Source: Columbia Grad Union FAQ.)
Why is a grievance procedure important and how does it work under a typical Union contract?
Union contracts typically include a grievance procedure, which provides due process to a member (or the union as an organization) if a problem arises during the contract or the administration is not fairly adhering to the contract. Though many grievances are resolved quickly and informally, most contracts allow for unresolved grievances to be taken to an outside neutral arbitrator whose decision is legally binding. For example, GSOC at NYU just won an arbitration case involving NYU’s wrongful denial of tuition remission benefits to workers in the School of Education and the School of Social Work. Affected graduate workers will receive a refund of approximately $1500/semester for each semester they were affected. Additionally, other graduate unions have found that the union grievance procedure offers more resources for students seeking to enforce their rights under Title IX to an environment free of sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination. GSU already has an informal grievance procedure, and we encourage you to get in touch with us if you have any concerns about the conditions of your work and study here. Though in the absence of a contract this process is not legally enforceable, together we can build momentum to address grievances. 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. (Source: Columbia Grad Union FAQ)
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. In the recent past, we have been organising together with faculty and staff against the implementation of Shared Services, as part of UofC resists, and stand in solidarity with the contingent faculty union effort. 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.
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.
Part 3: Membership Dues
Approximately how much would the union dues cost?
Dues are set by the local union–that is, by its members–based on what kind of operating budget they want to have. Among AFT affiliates, the average dues rate is about 2% of income.
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 short, even after dues their grad workers saw more take-home pay than before. The Universities of Washington and Michigan can boast similar triumphs.
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 Chicago 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.