Chicago grad employees in classic fight for a union

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A hearing at the University of Chicago has turned into a classic showdown over whether graduate employees should be allowed to unionize. Administrators are insulting them by describing their "work," complete with air quotes, as unimportant, unproved and inferior. They argue that graduate students are students only, not workers, despite the fact that they plan and teach classes, run labs and conduct important research.

Graduate Students United, an AFT-affiliated group striving for union recognition, is fighting back. GSU members and allies have packed the multiday National Labor Relations Board hearing in a show of solidarity, and social media support is palpable. "Couldn't do my research or teaching without grad assistants. We work as a team," wrote one professor. "Grad assistants absolutely provide value, both as TAs and RAs," wrote another.

Chicago graduate employees protesting

But Chicago is a case study in opposition. The administration has derided the work of research assistants at this leading research institution because their experiments "fail," a comment that drew virtual eye rolls on Twitter: "Do they understand science?" wrote one GSU member. One dean claimed that research assistants' work has no value to the university and that they create more work for professors; in response, RAs wondered, again on Twitter, whether administrators understand that they co-author the research papers established professors publish, and grade stacks of student papers for them as well.

In addition to insulting the work grad assistants do, the administration has contradicted its own policy, as pointed out in this tweet:

"UChi: 'Here's a W2. Pay taxes.' UChi: 'Apply for teaching jobs by Apr 28' Also UChi: 'U ARE NOT A WORKER WHO TOLD U THAT.'"

Meanwhile, the fact that at least one grad assistant was quietly grading papers in the hearing room was noted as proof that graduate employees do indeed work.

Graduate Students United formed in 2007 to advocate for fair wages, healthcare coverage, and better work and study policies. But in order to bargain a contract, GSU must be officially recognized. The NLRB's hearing will decide whether GSU qualifies for a union election. A "union yes" vote would require the administration to bargain with the unit.

Graduate employees at public institutions have had the right to unionize for decades. Policy for their colleagues at private institutions has seesawed depending on political appointments to the NLRB; the most recent decision supports the unions. Grad assistants are unionized at New York University and Columbia University; there are active campaigns at Brown, Cornell, Northwestern and Princeton universities, and the University of Pennsylvania.

The hearing at the University of Chicago began May 17 and is expected to continue through the last week of May. You can follow it on the Twitter hashtag #UChearing #YesGSU. GSU has already filed authorization cards indicating that a strong majority of graduate employees want to have a union election. If the NLRB rules in favor of GSU, the vote will move forward, with more than 2,000 grad assistants eligible to participate.

"Grad employees are the backbone of the University of Chicago," says Amanda Shubert, a fourth-year doctoral student in English. "As graduate teaching and research assistants, we perform essential work and deserve a seat at the table where decisions are made that affect our lives, those of our students, and the broader community. Forming this union allows us to speak with a strong collective voice."

"The truth is that graduate employees take on a huge proportion of the work—teaching classes, grading papers, holding office hours—that makes institutions like the University of Chicago run," says AFT President Randi Weingarten. "A union will help employees fight for important protections, but also help them to realize their vision for a more democratic workplace."

[Virginia Myers, IFT press release]