University of Chicago graduate workers have held walkouts and work-ins, petitioned university administrators and appealed to alumni, pressing resistant university administrators to recognize their union. On June 5 the grads escalated to a third day on the picket line, demanding that, nearly two years after they officially formed Graduate Students United, the university stop ignoring them and grant them status for collective bargaining, filing grievances and all the other rights of union workers.
The struggle for official recognition began in October 2017, when graduate employees overwhelmingly won a democratic election to unionize. But the university appealed that election to the Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board—a board that could disregard the election results and change the law that compels the university to bargain.
So GSU appealed to UChicago administrators for voluntary recognition. And for two years, administrators have refused. They claim graduate workers are not employees, but students—despite the fact that they teach classes, lead discussion groups, run labs and grade papers. In one unforgettable moment, an attorney for the university said grads were not working, they were teaching.
The three-day picket is the latest in a series of actions GSU has organized since the beginning of the academic year, including the walkout in October and the work-in in November. Graduate employees, which include teaching assistants, research assistants, lecturers, writing interns and language assistants, want the university to recognize GSU so that they can collectively bargain over issues such as late pay, inadequate healthcare and insufficient grievance procedures.
Pay is especially important, as many graduate employees hold multiple jobs just to make ends meet. One survey showed that 13 percent of graduate workers experience food insecurity—that is, they are not getting enough healthy food to eat because they cannot afford to buy it. “This kind of insecurity isn’t conducive to a good working—or learning—environment,” says Andrew Kunze, a Ph.D. candidate in the Divinity School. Kunze currently holds three different jobs with the university and remembers working overnight shifts during his first year as a graduate employee. “Even though I was receiving a university scholarship and living in university housing, I could not afford to pay rent and sleep in my own bed,” he says.
GSU members are determined to address these and other issues through their union, and the community is rallying to support them. Illinois Federation of Teachers President Daniel Montgomery, who is an AFT vice president, joined them on the picket line June 3, along with undergrads and alumni. Professors have signed nonretaliation statements, canceled or moved their classes, and issued statements urging the university to recognize GSU. Support has come in from as far away as presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, whose campaign tweeted encouragement to the grads, and from as close as the university’s Graduate Student Council, the Chicago Teachers Union, the student newspaper and locally elected officials. Other supporters have included the Chicago Federation of Labor, American Association of University Professors members, and AFT President Randi Weingarten, who tweeted, “Every graduate worker should have the right to a union.”
Even Beatrice Lumpkin, the 100-year-old labor icon and CTU member famous for her role in Chicago’s union community, showed up at the picket line in a “Red for Ed” top and cap. She has made her support for young activists clear, as in this blog post for AFT Voices: “I feel so good about the young people today who are newly streaming into the political process,” she says. “They are changing the debate, and will help us rebuild labor and save public education.”
“Overwhelmingly, people feel more and more that the way to get the university to the bargaining table is to force them to reckon with how critical our labor is to making this place run,” GSU Co-president Claudio Gonzáles, a fourth-year graduate student in math, told the Chicago Tribune. “We voted for a union 19 months ago. We wanted a union then, and we deserved a union then.”
[Virginia Myers, GSU organizers]