Press Release

Chicago Graduate Workers Win Union Vote

Historic Victory Will Boost Grad Organizing Campaigns Across the Country

For Release: 

Thursday, October 19, 2017


Andrew Crook
o: 202-393-8637 | c: 607-280-6603
Kenzo Shibata

CHICAGO –University of Chicago graduate employees have voted decisively for a union by more than a 2-1 majority in a history-making vote tallied Thursday.

The National Labor Relations Board announced that graduate assistants voted overwhelmingly to recognize Graduate Students United as their exclusive collective bargaining representative, 1,103 to 479.

Graduate employees work with students every day. They understand what their students need better than most. With a union, they will have the voice they need to push for improvements to the classes they teach and the research they conduct.

Founded in 2007, GSU has fought for healthcare, child care, stipends to match Chicago’s cost of living, funding to finish degrees and a regularized pay schedule.

GSU, which re-affirmed its affiliation with the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors in 2016, will immediately move to bargain a first contract with the university administration.

Claudio Gonzáles, a third-year student in mathematics, said: “Our overwhelming victory is a testament to our long-held belief: Graduate workers perform unquestionably valuable work and are the backbone of the University of Chicago. We have exercised our democratic right and have elected to sit at the table when decisions are made that affect our lives, and also the lives of our students and those in the broader community. With the power of collective bargaining, we can and will improve our working conditions; but in this long and challenging process we have also secured a powerful institutional voice. With it, we can stand with our fellow workers against all manners of injustice, and we can pursue university policies of equity and inclusion on terms that we dictate. We can even challenge the idea of who, by socio-economic circumstance, is able to attend graduate school in the first place. Today, we showed that grads at U of C are prepared to take responsibility in the world that our labor helps to shape.”

Chaz Lee, a seventh-year student in music said: “Today, I am so proud and thankful to belong to the community of graduate researchers and teachers––not just here on our campus, but across the entire country. We are the backbone of our universities. We spend countless hours working in the lab, grading papers, presenting our research at conferences, and mentoring our undergrad students because we believe in the value of what we do as scholars and teachers. With our decisive victory, grad workers at the U of C have affirmed not only our shared belief in the value of our work, but also our collective commitment to making our institution a better place for all of its academic workers. What a journey it’s been. They say that grad school can sometimes be a lonely and tiring place, but today I'm feeling nothing but love for what we do and what we have accomplished to get to this moment.”

Daniela Palmer, a student in ecology and evolution said, “It’s incredibly energizing to work with other graduate employees to have a voice on campus. It’s really exciting how this election fits into the national political landscape. We have received lots of support from allies at other institutions. It’s great to feel the solidarity nationwide from graduate workers and others. I feel so proud and happy we have sent a strong message as a collective group.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten said: “I am so proud that the University of Chicago graduate workers came together to fight for this union and worked very, very hard against all the obstacles to win—and win decisively. They get in their gut that a union gives them voice to make a difference in their lives and the lives of their students. The grass-roots passion that animated their struggle was apparent from the beginning, and for 10 years they stood strong to achieve this historic victory.

“GSU will inspire others to follow their path: a real say over the work they do, the same rights won by their peers and colleagues. The AFT will have their backs every single day, as they use their voice to fight for issues they care about, such as inclusion and healthcare and academic freedom, the representation they need, and the kind of country they want to live in. And I also look forward to supporting GSU at the bargaining table. I call on the Chicago administration to halt its attacks on graduate workers, respect the law and come to the table to secure mutual gains in a spirit of collaboration.”

“Graduate workers across the nation are building power by organizing unions, and the grads at the University of Chicago are helping to lead the movement,” said IFT President Dan Montgomery, a high school English teacher. “They know that union membership puts them in a powerful position to create positive change and improve the university experience for the students they serve. We congratulate them on their important victory and are proud to welcome them into our statewide family.”

AAUP President Rudy Fichtenbaum said: “Chicago graduate workers have already set standards and accomplished much for their campus by standing together. GSU’s strength and tenacity in the face of relentless challenges by the administration are an inspiration to colleagues across the country, colleagues who recognize their campus contributions as significant. The work they do is critical to the university’s teaching and research mission, and the university works because they do. We look forward to supporting GSU every step of the way to maintain a meaningful voice on campus and quality in higher education.”

Last year, the National Labor Relations Board formally classified private colleges’ graduate teaching and research assistants as workers. Grad workers are currently organizing with the AFT at Brown University, Cornell University, Northwestern University, Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania. The AAUP is committed to organizing with graduate employees and represents grads at many colleges and universities, including Portland State University, Rutgers, and the University of Rhode Island.

The AFT, the largest U.S. higher education union, already represents more than 25,000 grad employee members across 23 institutions in nine states.

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The AFT represents 1.7 million pre-K through 12th-grade teachers; paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel; higher education faculty and professional staff; federal, state and local government employees; nurses and healthcare workers; and early childhood educators.