Tides Are Turning in Academic Labor: Comparing Graduate Student Unions at UIC and UChicago

 /  May 29, 2019, 11:39 a.m.

Protesters at Uchicago gathered outside of International House during a forum featuring President Robert Zimmer, Dean John Boyer, and David Axelrod during April 2018 to draw attention to issues impacting the community, including GSU.

From March 19 to April 5, UIC graduate student employees, part of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) labor union went on strike for better pay and better treatment. GEO successfully bargained for a three- instead of four-year contract, a $2,550 raise—or 14 percent increase—in campus minimum salary, and a reduction of student life and health insurance fees, among other aims.

Jeff Schuhrke, a doctoral candidate in History at UIC and Co-President of GEO, said that “it is the best labor contract we have ever gotten, better than the four previous ones. It has the most gains, and it is directly because of the strike—because we fought so hard.”

The GEO had initially demanded a 24 percent salary increase over the next three years with more tuition waivers and, more importantly, a general decrease in tuition “differentials”—or fees necessitated by each department on top of base tuition. These differentials will not be reduced under the new contract. The UIC administration argued that they are critical for University funding. The union argued that students lacked protections from the rising cost of graduate school, and they would continue to bargain and strike until those protections were granted.

Negotiations between GEO and the UIC administration for the union’s fifth labor contract since its foundation began in March of last year. On March 19 of 2019, the GEO began their strike, forcing cancellation of hundreds of classes and halting operations at the university. Schuhrke thinks “the main lesson from our strike is just the power of collective action,” since it “was really impactful in terms of shutting down the university.”

Their success also helped prevent a strike by the UIC United Faculty union, which was authorized by vote of its members on April 11. After over a year of negotiations with UIC administration, UIC United Faculty avoided strike and reached a contract agreement on April 23.

“[The faculty] were probably motivated by seeing us” on strike, Schuhrke said. GEO’s impact on UIC’s campus was widely felt, and he thinks the “the administration, after the experience of our strike . . . [was] more willing to hurry up and settle and avoid another strike because it would make them look so bad.”

In addition to the reciprocal relationship between UIC’s graduate student workers and United Faculty, support for the strike efforts came from an unexpected yet powerful source. On March 25—just a handful of days into the graduate student strike—Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted his support for GEO’s actions, imploring the university’s administration to “sit down at the bargaining table. Negotiate in good faith. Pay your workers a living wage.” Sanders, who formally announced his candidacy for president about a month before his tweet, is making union empowerment a central tenet of his campaign.

Sanders’s few words on the issue spoke volumes for GEO. Although Schuhrke said he does not think the tweet had any direct effect on the administration’s willingness to compromise, the graduate student workers felt empowered.

“When you are in your own isolated struggle at UIC, you’re just wondering: Does anybody care? Is anyone paying attention to what we are doing?” Schuhrke said, reacting to Sanders’s words. “When somebody with a high profile like Bernie Sanders comes out and expresses his support and calls on the administration . . . it just helps. It feels affirming.”

The efforts of UIC graduate students to raise wages and reduce student fees are part of a national tide of educational labor efforts—and those sentiments especially reverberate throughout the city of Chicago. Right here on campus, University of Chicago’s Graduate Students United (GSU) has repeatedly called on University administration to formally recognize the union and bargain a contract to raise wages and quality of work.

Katie Nolan, a graduate student in English at UChicago and GSU’s Communications Secretary, argues that the vote by eligible graduate student employees to have GSU represent their interests in October 2017 should have been the moment the University administration formally recognized the union. This refusal to recognize GSU took place under Obama-era precedent that legitimized collective bargaining by graduate students at private universities, and now regulation by and sentiments from the Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board have made it “untenable [for GSU] to pursue legal recognition,” said Nolan.

While Schuhrke pondered that perhaps UChicago would have a recognized graduate union if the United States had elected another Democratic president in 2016, Nolan disagrees.

“I actually don’t think that waiting for the president to change is going to be a strategy that is going to work, because the change needs to happen on this campus, and we need our administrators to decide to do the right thing,” said Nolan. Ultimately, she argues, “The people that have to make that decision are not the president of the United States, it’s the president of this campus [Robert Zimmer]. He has the power to decide to recognize us.”

Zimmer’s office responded to a request for comment, ensuring that “we have great appreciation for all that graduate students bring to the University’s intellectual community,” and that “the University is working directly with graduate students and faculty on many fronts to improve graduate education and quality of life.” They insist that the reason graduate students at UChicago do not have formal recognition because they withdrew their election petition to the NLRB in 2018.

This academic year, GSU staged a walkout from classes in Fall Quarter and hosted a “day of visibility” of their work in the Regenstein A Level—grading undergraduate work and hosting office hours for their students. On May 1, in celebration of May Day, GSU and unions from throughout Chicago hosted a march and rally on campus.

UIC and UChicago are at very different points in their efforts towards reaching union recognition. Schuhrke seemed very aware of this fact. Knowing other private universities in the city of Chicago do not have formal recognition of their unions, Schuhrke did not want to “let all of the basic rights” they had “go to waste,” and he wanted GEO to “use all the tools” they had to win a new contract.

Meanwhile, Nolan said GSU was very excited for and supportive of UIC’s strike efforts. “[Striking] is a last resort, but we think that’s wonderful that they were successful.” She said she appreciated that “the education and labor movement in general is becoming more bold and willing to take these kinds of actions,” citing teacher strikes across the country as evidence that advocacy for workers’ rights has and should be at the forefront of the nation’s conversation.

Although the strike has ended and a contract agreement has been reached with UIC administration, GEO believes that the university has to, in Schuhrke’s words, “earn . . . [their] trust back” as employees and as students. Similarly, at UChicago, GSU plans on continuing to push for formal recognition and implore the University administration to use their personal power to do so rather than deferring to federal sentiment.

Nolan closed with the sentiment: “I think we all need to see ourselves as a part of a shared struggle . . . I think it is really something everyone should be concerned about—not just how much did your graduate student instructor make—but what is the health of our higher ed system, and what is the health of our education system in this country if we are not compensating teachers for our labor?”

Kaeli Subberwal provided the featured image.

Hopie Melton


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