LETTERS

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May 29, 2017

Graduate Students in STEM Departments Affirm Their Support for Student Unionization

As graduate research and teaching assistants in the Biological and Physical Sciences Divisions at the University of Chicago and members of Graduate Students United (GSU), we are voting yes for a union with our peers on campus. We believe that when graduate student employees have a collective democratic voice at the University, we can work with the administration to improve scientific research and education. 

A commitment to research is a commitment to researchers. We came to the University of Chicago to be trained as scientists who educate the public and other students, and contribute to groundbreaking research. Unionization will ensure that our voices as graduate student employees are genuinely incorporated into the decisions that impact our lives and work. Recognition will not only improve our ability to produce quality research and teach effectively, but will also benefit our relationships with our advisers. 

The prevailing uncertainty around national research funding increases the importance of unionizing to protect our work. In the lab sciences, the financial burden of research falls heavily on science faculty and graduate employees who procure external grants. Many graduate employees’ stipends are tied to their Principal Investigator (PI)’s funding, which in turn relies on national structures for research funding. The continuity of research depends on University commitments to bridge funding for labs that may be temporarily defunded. As a union, we can negotiate with the University administration for support against uncertain funding climates and unexpected situations for which there are currently no guaranteed protections, alleviating the burden such situations place on graduate students and their PIs.  

For those of us employed as instructors and teaching assistants, it is essential that no graduate employee’s ability to do research be hampered by overly heavy teaching duties. As part of a union, we can work with the University toward clearly defined limits on teaching loads and additional compensation if these are exceeded. Furthermore, we will have a platform through which we can secure appropriate resources in terms of materials and environment. This will enable us to offer students in the College the quality of education they deserve. 

The administration’s present lack of financial transparency means that we have to accept—without evidence—the administration’s word about the quality of health insurance they can afford and the funds they can contribute to our salaries. With a union, the University administration will be legally obligated to negotiate “in good faith,” meaning that we will have access to the relevant financial and budgetary information about the University’s resources. 

A collective bargaining agreement will grant graduate employees the right to negotiate a baseline for pay and benefits directly with the administration. Any existing benefits and further gains that we make will be enshrined in a contract and cannot be taken away. We will also be able to negotiate clear procedures for late pay, health insurance coverage on medical leave, compensation for departmental service, and other situations that may arise, taking away the burden currently placed on students and faculty to figure these out on a case-by-case basis. This will allow our relationships with our advisers to be focused on mentorship and research.  

Unionized graduate students at other universities have reported that graduate student unionization benefits students and faculty alike, and helps both parties better fulfill their duties as scientists and teachers. Joseph Helfer, a Ph.D. student in mathematics at Stanford University, explained that when he was a master’s student at McGill University, the union “made us conscious of and critically minded about our employment…I remember in particular speaking about [workplace] issues with my lab-mates and our adviser…It encouraged an openness about our professional relationship which may otherwise have been lost.” Chemistry student Reagan Belan from Simon Fraser University pointed to how unions in the academic workplace “can diffuse a tense situation as there is a prescribed procedure to follow with expected outcomes.” These testimonials are corroborated by peer-reviewed research. Gordon Hewitt (2000) found that 88 percent of faculty members at large public institutions did not believe that collective bargaining inhibited graduate student education. Sean Rogers et al. (2013) found that unionized graduate student employees actually report better relationships with their faculty advisers than their non-union peers, and that unionization was tied to better educational outcomes.  

Unionization will not impose ceilings on work hours, limit STEM stipends, or interfere with the personalized relationships and flexible work hours that many of us value, precisely because we are the people establishing our organizational structure and objectives. Moreover, a union will allow graduate employees to secure basic protections that are nonfinancial in nature, and provide us with a collective voice and legal recourse to better address issues pertaining to harassment and discrimination. For example, the current grievance procedures at the University are overseen by a panel of faculty members and the administration, with the ultimate decision made unilaterally by the Provost. A union will allow us to address such grievances through a formal mechanism where the students’ interests as well as the administration’s are represented, and where the final decision, if a satisfactory solution cannot be reached, is made by an impartial arbitrator. As unionized graduate student employees, we will be able to work together to protect and improve our working conditions. And every step of the unionization process—from a recognition vote, to selecting a bargaining committee, to ratifying a contract—is democratic.  

We invite you to join hundreds of STEM students at the University of Chicago who have weighed the evidence and decided to join GSU in support of unionization. We are joining a growing community of our peers who have concluded that unionization is a crucial step in protecting the future of science research and education, and in ensuring a continued institutional commitment to research across the country. 

Elizabeth Bain, Chemistry 

Andrea Bryant, Physics 

Julian Day-Cooney, Neurobiology 

Clara del Junco, Chemistry 

Carlos di Fiore, Mathematics 

Tim Fessenden, Cancer Biology 

Mathilde Gerbelli-Gauthier, Mathematics 

Eyjólfur Guðmundsson, Medical Physics 

Marianna Johnson, Molecular Metabolism and Nutrition 

Gourav Khullar, Astrophysics 

Nicholas Knoblauch, Genetics, Genomics, and Systems Biology 

Will Kong, Computer Science 

Grant MacDonald, Geophysical Science 

Peter Malonis, Computational Neuroscience 

Roberto Márquez, Ecology and Evolution 

Joel Mercado-Díaz, Evolutionary Biology 

Brooke Miller, Neurobiology 

Boleslaw Osinski, Biophysical Sciences 

Daniela Palmer, Evolutionary Biology 

Andrew Phillips, Chemistry 

Martin Scheeler, Physics 

Claire Stevenson, Developmental Biology 

Chiao-Yu Tao, Physics 

Rachel Vishnepolsky, Mathematics 

Rob Webber, Statistics 

Audrey Williams, Cell and Molecular Biology 

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