Last week, graduate and undergraduate student workers at the University of Chicago’s libraries filed a pair of election petitions with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). If successful, unions would represent these two groups of students in contract negotiations with the University administration. While the move by graduate students is a step forward in a decades-long path towards unionization for graduate student workers around the country, the library workers are among the first groups of mostly undergraduate student workers to pursue unionization. Both groups’ efforts should be welcomed as progress towards a more equitable and accountable university community.
The University’s public opposition to graduate student unionization has focused on the relationship between graduate students and faculty. As President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Daniel Diermeier wrote in an e-mail to graduate students and faculty, adopting the menacing hypothetical that is apparently the administration’s house-style when discussing unionization, “A union could come between students and faculty to make crucial decisions on behalf of students, focusing on collective interests rather than each student’s individual educational goals. The nature of collective bargaining could also compromise the ability of faculty to mentor and support students on an individualized basis.”
Some research has been done on this question. A 2013 study (Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees, in Industrial and Labor Relations Review) found that graduate student employees at unionized institutions reported a better relationship with their advisors in several areas. A survey of professors at unionized schools in 2000 (Graduate Student Employees Collective Bargaining and the Educational Relationship Between Faculty and Graduate Students in the Journal of Collective Negotiations), on the other end of the NLRB’s recent vacillations, failed to discover deteriorated relationships with their advisees. Many highly-regarded public universities have found a way to accommodate educational goals to a greater voice for graduate employees. The University of Chicago ought to be able to do the same.
In arguments currently before the NLRB, the University has advanced a different line—that graduate students are not workers, in the sense protected by federal labor laws. This is the position that blocked graduate student unionization at private universities until last August, and might block it again, once the Trump-era NLRB revisits the issue. However, it’s important to understand that being a teaching or a research assistant can often be a full-time position. Graduate students often teach their own classes at the University and, like professors, are responsible for writing lesson plans, creating tests, and grading. No matter the formal title, if two people are doing the same amount of work, they should—at the very least—receive equal benefits.
Students at the University—including the student workers implicated in these elections—are well-credentialed, or headed that way. They still face the problem unions are designed to address: As individuals, they have limited and inconsistent leverage in comparison to their employer. Both groups have expressed their concerns in these pages about their current conditions of employment. Some might be addressed by the administration’s good graces—but unions could pressure the University administration to address the rest, and give student workers power when as-of-yet unforeseen questions arise.
We take it as uncontested that the welfare of student workers is a valid concern for the broader University community. The presence of unions would pair this conviction with the institutionalized power to make it a reality.
—The Maroon Editorial Board