University of Chicago Graduate Workers Are Trying to Unionize
Following recent victories at Yale and Northwestern, graduate student workers at the University of Chicago are voting on whether to unionize at the end of the month. We spoke with workers there about the history of their effort and what they think is next.
- Interview by
- Sara Wexler
On January 31 and February 1, graduate student workers at the University of Chicago will vote on whether to unionize with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). This will be UChicago grad workers’ second attempt at winning union recognition through a National Labor Relation Board (NLRB) process; though workers voted to unionize by a large margin in 2017, the university refused to voluntarily recognize the union, and the union withdrew its petition before the NLRB in fear of an adverse ruling by the conservative Trump-era labor board.
The vote comes on the heels of a union election victory by grad student workers at nearby Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who also unionized with UE, as well as another win by grad workers at Yale University unionizing with Local 33 UNITE HERE. Jacobin’s Sara Wexler spoke with UChicago worker-organizers about the history of their unionization effort and what they think is coming next.
The most recent effort, in terms of launching our card campaign, really picked up steam over the summer. We spent a lot of spring and the early months of 2022 building relationships and trust and power. After a lot of that work was done, we felt prepared to start a card campaign. So we launched that on the first day of our fall quarter 2022, got a huge amount of cards on the first day, and from there haven’t stopped since we decided to file for an election, after the university declined to voluntarily recognize us back in November.
Did the organizing happen mostly through in-person conversations? Was any of it online?
People have been trying to organize a union on this campus since 2007. So it’s been a long, long fight. We went through this whole process in 2017, where we affiliated with AFT [the American Federation of Teachers] and then did a vote for recognition, and we won by a two-to-one margin. At that time, there was a conservative NLRB because of Donald Trump’s administration, so the university refused to recognize the results of that election. We didn’t have the option to pursue the federal NLRB route to recognition, because there was a wide understanding at that time that, if we were to do that, there was a good chance that the NLRB would rule that grad students aren’t workers and would set a bad precedent. So we, Harvard, and some other unions withdrew petitions to the NLRB to avoid that.
Then the union at the time sought voluntary recognition from the university, and the university just stonewalled and refused to recognize us. So there was a strike in 2019 for voluntary recognition. It was a three-day strike; it was really powerful. I was a masters student at the time, but I was on the picket line. The university still didn’t recognize that or respond directly in any way.
After that strike, there were changes. The university did increase funding and change the funding structure for a lot of students. But they never attributed that to the union’s efforts, even though we believe that that’s a huge reason why that happened.
After that, there was a lot of burnout; we were at a really low capacity as a union, and the pandemic hit — it was completely out of nowhere. I wasn’t there at that time; Michael was there actually. My understanding is that there was a lot of mobilization around trying to get protections and trying to help people during the pandemic. I think that radicalized a lot of people.
Once we got into the current Democratic administration, we all knew this was our window of opportunity to pursue unionization again and actually make it happen. We decided to affiliate with UE, which happened this past summer. That was our way of kick-starting this campaign again.
We’ve learned a lot from campaigns, like that of the MIT union that’s also affiliated with UE, and how they talked to people in labs, in the sciences, and focused on those issues and did things like walkthroughs in those places, which was also effective to get that face time, to talk to people and meet people who otherwise wouldn’t have known about the union.
The pandemic period for us was crucial. In many ways, prior to the pandemic, we really were a union that was a better fit for AFT. The pandemic radicalized and broadened the scope of what a union could do for most of our members: we became a union that is a better fit for UE, because we spent a lot of time during the pandemic doing broader community work and thinking about UChicago as a broader community network, not just a collection of grad employees.
Could you say more about the decision to switch affiliation from AFT to UE? I know Northwestern University’s grad worker union also made the same decision.
The affiliation with AFT ended around the time that the NLRB petition was withdrawn, because there just wasn’t alignment between AFT and the organizers on the ground at UChicago. But the decision to affiliate with UE was one that was made gradually and democratically. We had a period of time when we were researching unions that we might want to affiliate with. But during that period of time, we were unaffiliated and running a really tight ship doing amazing mutual-aid work. We were delivering meals to grad students; I think there were a lot of folks who were actively organizing in solidarity with other groups.
We decided over the summer to affiliate with UE, largely because they have this amazing track record of organizing other campuses that are hard to organize for various reasons, but also because we were excited about their rank-and-file philosophy of organizing. That stands out to a lot of grad workers, because it gives grad workers the horizontal leadership access that I think is sometimes not possible in other union structures, having the ability to make decisions collectively — even the decision to affiliate was made at a general members’ meeting with several hundred people in attendance in person and on Zoom.
Having an opportunity to discuss and vote on that together feels emblematic of the kind of union that we want to have, as does knowing that our relationship with UE is largely one where we’re learning, not just from the staffers who have joined our campaign, but also from colleagues at Northwestern. Also, being able to teach colleagues who are going through the process alongside us at other institutions has been really powerful.
As we were moving in a different direction, AFT was moving in a different direction as well. What we saw, and what Northwestern saw, was that, as a bunch of different national unions were attempting to rethink the higher education union model, AFT went in the direction of almost a kind of boutique unionism, called AFT Academics, that involves a dues structure often without a secure local or even a contract. A lot of graduate workers across the country feel like, when they secure a contract, they also want the reins on that union — they want to have a very real stake and say in the kind of union they are building. That was just not the direction that AFT was moving.
What were the main catalysts or motivations for fighting for a union?
We might all have slightly different answers, and you’re talking to three folks who are in social policy, humanities, and social sciences. I’m sure a STEM person would have a STEM-specific answer to offer too.
For me, coming in and wanting to see my graduate work as a job was important. Because academia can be all-consuming and isolating. If you’re able to conceptualize it as a job, you’re able to have boundaries and also a clearer sense of what your labor and contributions to an employer are worth. So I wanted there to be those clear distinctions: that I was, in fact, a worker, and not just a student or an apprentice.
What that meant was that I came in wanting there to be much better compensation and benefits than I was going to be getting. I came from working as a social worker in a really expensive city; I know how to live on not a lot. But even coming from working in an underpaid profession, I took a pay cut to come back to school. I think that’s true for a lot of us who haven’t gone straight to grad school. Also, the fact that the academic job market is what it is is relevant to a lot of us — that we’re already living in precarity, we’re already struggling to make tough decisions about how to pay our rent and afford living expenses and putting off going to the dentist for several years. On principle, I don’t think that anybody who is affiliated with the University of Chicago in any sort of employment relationship should have to be on food stamps or forgo any kind of medical, dental, or vision treatments because we don’t have enough money.
So a living wage and benefits are the big two reasons for me and a lot of colleagues in my area. Also, there are a lot of student parents in the social work school. A lot of us tend to be older, and so having access to health care that’s not a student wellness center, and where the premium for adding a dependent is not several thousand dollars, would be amazing.
A lot of our advisers are telling us over and over again, “There are no jobs.” What we found ourselves saying back is, “This is a job. And this is my job.” Some of us have been here for six years, and to think of it as sort of an apprenticeship for a landscape that doesn’t have a job at the end of it . . . it became a sort of rallying cry, that this is a job and this needs to be treated as a job.
What drove a lot of people to unionism at UChicago as well was that, even when we did get raises, even when we did see carrots of some kind, we saw that UChicago had such a stranglehold on housing on the South Side, such a stranglehold on these networks of resources. So, anytime we saw a pay raise, we would see a rent increase. There was no transparency in how this sort of network was intended to take as much money from us as possible, whether that was in student fees — which we successfully fought for the waiver of — or whatever. I feel like unionism is the only way for us to strike at the heart of the entire network of precarity that’s being constructed at UChicago.
When you start talking to your coworkers and hearing over and over again about all these issues, like people who are not going to the dentist . . . that’s such a common story; it feels like that’s the vast majority of people. Or people who are facing abusive environments in their workplace, from their advisers, or being asked to stay at the lab all night or over the weekend, or are facing harassment, and there’s no systematic response. It’s just this overwhelming feeling of, “You’re on your own.” And it’s up to luck and your own ability to survive. That’s so disheartening and so clearly an indication that there’s something wrong here.
This model of apprenticeship in grad schools — it’s just not effective. We need the protections of a workplace that has a union.
What were the main difficulties or challenges you faced while trying to organize?
I think it’s specific to the different areas of the university that we’re organizing, because people have different wants or needs. We’ve also been pretty pleasantly surprised that STEM workers, for example, are fired up and well organized. Same with a lot of international students.
One of the challenges has certainly been, coming out of the pandemic, finding ways to get people who have been hard to reach — I also think getting folks who are more advanced in their programs and are not on campus as much or are mainly connected to their dissertation work. Those are challenges that are inherent in any sort of grad-worker organizing campaign but that are also present here.
Also, the fact that the University of Chicago’s administration has been so comfortable in the past being openly hostile to labor meant that that was a consideration for us launching our campaign. To what extent do people feel comfortable vocally supporting a labor movement on their campus with their colleagues in an environment where the University of Chicago insists over and over again, for example, that the teaching that we’re doing is mentor teaching experience and not a teaching assistantship? There’s so many moments like that at this university, where it’s very obvious to most of us what the university is trying to do. So to have the conversations with folks who are not yet on the same page about this being a job is one of the things that I think is particularly challenging at the University of Chicago, because of the forceful way in which the university in the past has come out with really, really aggressive arguments that we’re not workers.
People are skeptical of anything being able to be changed for the better and that something like this could work. It’s always an uphill battle to show examples of why a union would be a really helpful thing. It’s helpful to have examples of other unions at places like Harvard, Columbia, and NYU that have fought and won amazing contracts. Now we have those examples that we didn’t have even a few years ago to point to and say, “This is actually happening in our peer institutions, and they are winning things that would improve our lives if we had them.”
In my department, it was cool to see this change happen over the last few years. When I joined as a first year, I think, people were pretty skeptical or sort of apathetic. Our fight to cancel the student service fees was this moment of showing that when we do come together and fight for something, we can make a change. People tangibly experienced that with that fight. And now our department is one of the best-organized, strongest departments, because they really saw that up close in that process.
We got all the way to the finish line: we won our election [in 2017], but we had to formally withdraw our NLRB petition of our own accord to save other unions nationally. We got so far without winning. It took a lot of work to convince people that — not only can we do it again, and get all the way to the contract — but that in the process of not getting all the way there and not getting the contract, we can still point to countless wins that we got along the way: the process of trying to unionize meant benefits and pay increases for graduate students. We had to be able to lay that out and do a political education campaign for many people, to fill them in on the institutional memory of our fight that goes back to 2007.
Where are you at now, and what’s next?
Step one is win the election; that’s where we’re at now. Our two voting days are January 31 and February 1, but we also have plenty of folks who will be voting by mail. What that means is that we won’t get our results until the middle of March. So we’re going to be waiting in suspense for a month and a half. But we feel really confident, just based on the fact that 1,500 grad workers have pledged to vote yes, as of yesterday evening [January 24]. Department by department, we’ve got organizers everywhere who can confirm that their people are going to show up to the polls. It has been cool to see that we’re close to the legal recognition we deserve.
But having plans in place for bargaining and revisiting the initial platform that we created is certainly on our radar. We are also learning and being mindful about the ways in which bargaining can often be a contentious process. Even within a union, we want to be mindful and strategic about the best way to incorporate all voices. We want this to be a unit for all grad workers, not just grad workers who meet whatever definition of laborer or worker is pushed out by the NLRB.
We have grand plans after celebrating to talk to as many grad workers as possible about the specifics about what they want in a contract and about the things that are winnable — not just pie-in-the-sky dreams, but winnable based on other universities’ contracts. For example, having time off to go deal with your visa, having access to a list of low-cost immigration attorneys, having the ability to add a dependent without worrying about paying 5 or 10 percent of your stipend to insurance or getting more than $2,000 a year to pay for childcare — those are all things that are very winnable, and I think people want them. It’s a matter of having the small-scale and large-scale conversations to get our priorities straight.
We have a platform, but it’s just that; it’s a scaffold, and it’s time to build the building. That includes a lot of things that fall within the planks of our platform but are not clearly delineated. We still have listening to do from all of our members.
But issues that the platform doesn’t speak explicitly to would include things like a full review of the UChicago Police Department: its funding mechanisms, its protocols and policies, and the way it impacts the South Side community. This is just an example of the kinds of things that we’re able to do beyond dental and optical and a pay raise. A lot of people think that unionism is making your job a little bit of a better job; I think it’s so much more than that. The next big hard work to do is to make sure we don’t take that win and then shrink it to a simple ask — that we really think about what collective power means.
How do you envision the union changing life for graduate students? What role do you see the union playing in your academic lives?
I’ve mentioned many times in organizing conversations that, for me, this is a great job. I’m having a really positive experience on campus with a really great supervisor. I have external funding that supplements my stipend. I have a fair amount of access to the specialists that I need. But those are all things that are very much by happenstance or not commonplace, as I’ve learned from a lot of organizing conversations.
The big takeaway is that a union contract could allow my experience to become a minimum standard for everybody else. In a dream world, that’s what I would want. I’m not coming at this organizing campaign from a position of having been harmed or wronged personally; I’m coming at it from the perspective of, “If this is possible for me, it should be possible for everybody.” I think that does translate to the specifics of dental and vision, affordable health insurance, not being restricted to a student wellness center referral, having access to the resources that I need when I want to start having kids in the next few years, and knowing that the university’s policies and procedures are ones that are not set up to put me at a disadvantage in whatever conflicts might arise between me as a worker and the administration, or between me and my professors as my bosses. Those are all things that I’m excited about and that I feel are within reach for the first time in a meaningful, standardized way.
Unionization has the potential to change higher education too, as a field. I think we’re seeing that with this unionization wave happening across universities, where there’s a recognition of the precarity in this field that people are feeling, that they feel they need redress to. We’re hoping that what we’re doing here — what everyone is doing across the country — will change this field for the better. I hope we see more unions for non–tenure track faculty, for undergrad workers, for staff. And also unions for everyone else — it’s so cool to see that happening as well in other industries, like at Amazon and Starbucks, and to be a part of that whole wave of change.
We have something special here at UChicago called the University of Chicago Labor Council, which is made up of graduate workers, nurses, library workers, non–tenure track faculty, building engineers, Teamsters, and so on. With one more union contract in that council, we have the kind of teeth to make wholesale change here. This is not just a bunch of graduate students coming together and getting a piece of the pie. It is a wholesale endeavor, and it always has been. We’ve always worked closely with them, and I think we’re finally going to be able to bring the power to the table that we’ve always wanted to in order to make changes.
Can you tell me when and how the organizing around the union started?