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UChicago Grad Students Unionize with Overwhelming Majority

After 15 years of mobilizing effort, graduate students are finally forming a union.

By Featured, News

According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), 1696 students voted YES, whereas only 155 students voted NO. Photo Courtesy: GSU’s Instagram

For almost 15 years, graduate students at the University of Chicago (UChicago) have been organizing to form a union.

Although once seen as a far-fetched reality, the students are finally closer to their dreams as on Mar. 16, 92 percent of the graduate students voted to form their union, UChicago Graduate Students United (GSU) with United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), making it a historical win for the students who have been fighting for better treatment in the workplaces on campus.

“This victory belongs to the thousands of workers on this campus who turned out to vote. It was made especially possible by hundreds of organizers who built a campaign led by graduate workers from every division,” the union wrote on its Instagram account after the results of the elections were announced. “This victory belongs to our relationships that we sustain and grow by doing walkthroughs, lab visits, and town halls; by having one-on-one conversations, phone calls, socials, and committee meetings; and by sending texts, emails, and newsletters,” they add.

The election for union recognition was held by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Jan. 30, and Feb.1. According to the NLRB, 1696 students voted YES, whereas only 155 students voted NO.

Neomi Rao, the co-president of GSU believes that this overwhelming support shows the faith the student workers have in the union.

“The overwhelming support is a testament to many generations of dedicated organizing of student workers at UChicago that has culminated in the landslide victory. It also shows the resonance of the issues we have been talking to our co-workers, who know that a union is the way to secure living wages, and affordable healthcare, and making grad school accessible and equitable for parents, international students, and marginalized students” Rao, a third-year Ph.D. student in political science told F Newsmagazine.

With this win, UChicago GSU joins the huge unionization wave that is happening around the campuses as graduate students organize for better wages and fair treatment. This includes institutions like Northwestern University which recently voted to unionize with UE, as well as several other universities including Yale and Harvard.

However, for the student workers at UChicago, getting union recognition wasn’t an easy victory.

Although GSU was formed in 2007, it was only after a decade of organizing that their efforts saw some progress as NLRB finally held elections for them to unionize with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

During this election in 2017, the graduate students voted to unionize with a 2-1 majority. Still, the student workers weren’t able to unionize, primarily because of two major reasons. Firstly because the university administration appealed the certification of the election results. Secondly, they themselves withdrew from the NLRB process as they feared that the appointment of conservatives to the NLRB board during the Trump administration would backfire and rule against their right to unionize. 

Yet regardless of all the roadblocks, the student workers continued to mobilize their resources and brought a couple of changes including a yearly increase in stipend for doctoral students, elimination of Advance Residency tuition, and many more. Furthermore, citing the reasons for wanting to form an independent union, the students eventually decided to disaffiliate from AFT and chose UE as their parent union, last year.

Now, with the recent victory, the union members said they are grateful for the support shown by the students and are hopeful that they can work together with the administration.

 “I hope the administration should follow the law and bargain with us in good faith,”  Valay Agarwal, GSU’s communications secretary told F Newsmagazine.

While in the past, the university administration slowed down the unionizing of the students, this time things look a little different. 

In an email sent to the University community, Provost Ka Yee C. Lee assured that the administration will work with students and “bargain in good faith”.

“I am thankful to everyone who engaged in this process, especially the students who voted, whether they voted for or against unionization,” she wrote. “I congratulate GSU-UE on their successful advocacy in this process. The University will bargain in good faith with GSU-UE with the goal of supporting the continued academic success of all graduate students.”

Union members say the next step is to form a bargaining committee that will work to build a fair contract.

According to GSU, an election is scheduled from Mar. 20 to 23, to select the representatives who will represent the 3,000 grad student workers of the union. 

“We are in the process of electing our bargaining committee and looking forward to meeting the administration at the table. The graduate workers will collectively bargain for better pay, better health insurance, equitable policies that include robust grievance procedures, international student support and so much more,” Agarwal said.

Ankit Khadgi (MAVCS 2024) is a Nepali journalist based in Chicago. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Guardian, the Kathmandu Post, and the Gaysi Family.
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