The movement for graduate student organizing doesn’t start at the University of Chicago. It starts in 1969 at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, when teaching assistants affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. There are now some 23 officially recognized graduate employee unions all across the country, including at some of the largest public universities like the University of California, and there have been long-running organizing campaigns at other places like Yale and NYU. In some places, like Yale, graduate students have been highly successful in winning additional rights and benefits without ever becoming officially recognized. The Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions, formed in 1992, connects these different groups (including ours!).
May 2, 2007
GSU formed when a group of fifteen graduate students came together in the midst of the administration’s $50 million Graduate Aid Initiative, which had prompted collective outrage that spring by offering decent funding packages to incoming students but doing nothing for the existing grad students, many of whom had been here for years without getting a penny of financial support. At first we had little more than a name and a desire to look into different ways of organizing ourselves to improve our situation and the university.
Summer and Fall 2007
We started off by working on our organizational structure and our visibility on campus. Got in contact with the Maroon, the Teamsters, the undergraduate labor group SOUL, and the Graduate Funding Committee. (The GFC is currently a committee of Grad Council; we often work together with them, but we are an independent organization and they are part of Student Government.) Our earliest fliers said simply: “Join the fight for fair: funding / teaching / health insurance.” We started collecting data on graduate students and employees (which the administration has never made public). Our initial surveys suggested that grad students taught about 1/3 of core courses in humanities and social science – a more significant part of the university’s teaching workforce than the College’s recruitment literature indicated.
Formally adopted a consensus system for making group decisions in meetings, which continues more or less to this day. (We do vote if we can’t reach agreement in discussion.)
Started to circulate a petition calling on the administration to improve health insurance and to reduce counterproductive fees/tuition for Advanced Residency. We concluded: “The University of Chicago, in order to fulfill its moral obligations as a social institution, to remain competitive with its peer institutions, and to achieve its own goals of excellence in education and research, should provide full health insurance coverage for all students employed by the University.” We had gathered 541 signatures by the time we submitted our petition to administrators later that spring.
Feb 19, 2008
In our first major action, 175 students gathered and marched to the administration building, carrying apples to symbolize their education, to demand that the administration improve on its TA pay, its lacking health insurance and summer funding, its inequitable stipend distribution, its illogical AR fees, and its insufficient support for international students. At that time, TA pay in humanities and social sciences was $1500/quarter, about the worst of anywhere in the nation and far lower than the teaching pay at any of our peer institutions.
March 12, 2008
We held a rally in conjunction with the Graduate Funding Committee, attracting a large crowd (around 160). The high point may have been Joe Grim Feinberg’s song, “The Ballad of the Marooned Dissertation Writers: “First we took our classes / then we wrote up our MAs. Then we took exams / And we proposed to dissertate. / Then we did our research in the field so far away. / Then we looked into our pockets / And we found we had no pay.”
Marc Bousquet, a prominent critic and analyst of unfair academic labor systems, came to speak to a GSU audience on campus.
May Day 2008
Announced the beginning of a membership drive and formally established “Graduate Students United” as an independent graduate employee organization, that is, a union. In one daytime meeting and an evening party, we signed up almost 70 members of this independent organization, issued membership cards and started collecting dues.
May 28-29, 2008
GSU organized a well-attended “Teach-Out,” where grad student supporters and professors held their classes outside to support fair pay and health care coverage for all university employees.
August 25, 2008
GSU’s first major victory: after substantial student pressure earlier that year, the administration announced 100% pay raises for TAs, and major increases for other teaching jobs.
Politics this quarter was dominated by a campus controversy over the newly-announced Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics. GSU deliberated for some time over whether to get involved; eventually we held a referendum, our first ever, to decide whether to take a GSU stand on the issue. Our referendum said of the MFI: “Critics have argued that it was instituted without enough campus input and that it endorses Friedman-style free-market politics. Some GSU organizers feel that we should take a position on it, since it has many implications for campus politics, governance and resource distribution. Others argue that we should stick to our regular organizing campaign, and should be wary of potentially aligning ourselves with a particular ideology.” In the end, 73% of voting members chose to support GSU involvement in the issue and, accordingly, we released a statement deeply critical of the MFI’s governing principles, which seemed to “sacrifice internal democracy in favor of profits.”
A number of problems with university healthcare came to the surface: wait times for routine appointments at the Student Care Center (SCC) were measured in months; emergency hospital care was increasingly denied to local residents for cost-cutting reasons; the campus community felt it had an inadequate voice in policy decisions. We held a number of public forums on the issue and formed a coalition with undergraduate and community groups; and the administration improved SCC service almost immediately — a relatively easy first success.
In one of our busiest quarters ever, GSU organized around the issue of teaching job availability, launching a referendum asking members to approve policy statements on jobs and health care. The job campaign reached a high point with a “thumb twiddle” rally at the end of the quarter, attended by around 100 people. A GSU delegation also met with Deputy Provost Cathy Cohen, presenting GSU analysis of and proposed solutions to the anticipated job availability shortage. In more routine yet critically important organizational matters, we standardized our new member paperwork and welcome procedures. And we hosted pub nights throughout the quarter, capped off by an end-of-quarter house party.
GSU met with organizers from the American Federation of Teachers (IFT-AFT) to discuss affiliation. Over subsequent months and into the fall we had open meetings with Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU). GSU sends letter to Government of Haiti in solidarity with several jailed members of a Haitian student-teacher organization who had been organizing in support of an increase to the national minimum wage.
GSU introduced the organization to new grad students at departmental orientations and a lasagna bake-off. We screen-printed and sold our first-ever t-shirts. Advanced Residency took center stage, with GSU advocating for the abolition of AR tuition in a variety of ways, including issuing a formal statement and attending Provost’s forums. Other nuts-and-bolts organizing work took place mostly in committees, covering issues of teaching availability and health insurance. We ended the quarter by initiating a second phase of the affiliation process by holding an “affiliation summit,” where attendees reviewed affiliation options and decided on a winter quarter organizing strategy.
GSU begins implementing its “departmental organizer” system and initiates a campaign to expand discussion on the possibility of affiliation, in anticipation of a spring quarter member referendum to decide the issue.
2009 – 2010
Multiple GSU efforts draw attention to grad student fees.
A Provost-convened committee recommends reducing the burden of annual Advanced Residence fees ($2352).
Provost decides not to reduce annual AR or other fees, which together with insurance premiums cost over $5000, highlighting once again the need for formal union recognition and collective bargaining.
GSU votes to affiliate with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).
GSU gathers 2800 signatures on a petition urging the National Labor Relations Board to rule on a case regarding graduate employees’ right to unionize (before the Board’s quorum expires). Two weeks after GSU delivers the petition to the Chicago NLRB office, President Obama appoints two new members to the NLRB, ensuring quorum for 2012.
GSU organizes a letter-writing campaign, urging the NLRB to rule on the case.
NLRB announces it will rule on the case (after a 2-year silence). AFT and AFL-CIO draft an amicus brief on behalf of private university graduate employees (with GSU’s help).
April – May 2012
GSU, in collaboration with the Student-Parent Organization, gathers 1100 signatures on a petition to the University administration, demanding affordable childcare for student parents. GSU and SPO also organize a panel, “Toward a Parent-Oriented University,” where student, faculty, and staff parents discuss urgently needed changes with Provost Debbie Nelson.
2017 Union Recognition Election
The Regional Director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled on 8th August 2017 that a vote on union representation was to take place October 17 and 18, on the UChicago campus, for our bargaining unit. After years of organizing, and months of stalling, we would have a formal opportunity to say #YesGSU!
The ruling specified the following voting eligibility formula: “All graduate students, including Masters students, who have received compensation for work performed in a unit position in at least one quarter of Autumn 2016, Winter 2017, Spring 2017, Summer 2017, or Autumn 2017 who have not yet attained their degree or otherwise completed their course of study with the Employer.” All schools and divisions included in our initial petition were eligible to vote: BSD, Divinity, Humanities, PSD, SSA, and SSD.
We initially petitioned for this vote in early May 2017 and hoped to vote in the Spring. The administration stretched what should have been a hearing of a few days into a two-week odyssey, arguing that our work was not work and that we did not create value for the university. By so doing, they delayed the election until October.
In late September 2017, the University of Chicago administration appealed the Regional NLRB’s decision to order an election. Specifically, the administration requested a review of the election decision and a motion to stay the election. However, because the Federal NLRB had not issued a decision, the union election continued as planned on October 17 and 18, 2017.
The results of our October 2017 union-recognition election were:
1103 voted Yes
479 voted No
2017-2018: Administrative Stonewalling
After our historic election in fall 2017, the University promptly appealed the certification of the election results: despite having encouraged graduate workers to vote in the election in order to make their voice heard, we learned that the University is not truly as committed to free expression as it likes to pretend.
This appeal was stalled until Trump’s last appointment to the NLRB was set for confirmation in early 2018. In coordination with a handful of graduate unions in similar situations across the US, GSU withdrew its NLRB certification to prevent the case from going to the board, which might have endangered other graduate unions whose elections had already been certified, and continued pressing for direct recognition by the University. President Robert Zimmer and Provost Daniel Diermeier attempted to make it appear as though GSU no longer existed and that its campaign for recognition was over in both public messages and in direct responses to demands to bargain.
In May 2018, GSU protested President Zimmer’s first semi-public event on campus in at least five years; “semi-public” because the town hall on “free expression” was only open to undergraduate students.
2018-2019: Escalating Actions by GSU
During the 2018-2019 academic year, we held a series of escalating actions in our campaign for direct recognition by the University. A walk-out in October 2018 was attended by hundreds of grad workers and heralded as the largest campus protest in years. A teach-in in November of 2018 took over a floor of the Regenstein library, drawing attention from administrators and campus police who attempted to disrupt the action. A May Day parade and rally in 2019 organized by the UChicago Labor Council included members of GSU, National Nurses United, Teamsters, SLEU, and workers from other unions on campus.
Finally, an historic industrial action in June 2019, which was overwhelmingly voted for by membership, brought hundreds of grad workers onto picket lines and shut down parts of campus for the last three teaching days of the quarter.
2019-2020: Funding Overhaul and Global Crisis
In the fall of 2019, we initially turned our attention toward responding to the University administration’s overhaul of doctoral funding, which was announced without previous consultation with graduate students or faculty in October 2019. This overhaul was clearly meant to undermine our union efforts by attempting to divorce our pay from our teaching labor and rhetorically recasting it as “pedagogical training.” Upper-year doctoral candidates were again excluded from funding improvements, and enrollment caps were instituted divisionally in an attempt to force upper-year students out of programs and arbitrarily bring down time-to-degree.
In response to this top-down overhaul of our working conditions, we circulated a petition and organized a phone zap to the administration around our demands in response to the funding overhaul.
In winter and spring 2020, while still responding to the funding overhaul, our organizing turned toward addressing the changes and challenges cased by COVID-19 and the sudden transition to remote teaching and learning. We organized a one-day virtual walk-out and teach-in in June 2020 to draw attention to issues associated with the University’s COVID-19 response.
In June 2020, after an investigative process and consideration of our options for future organizing and recognition, we voted to disaffiliate from AFT and form an independent union.