A week ago, Columbia University announced a plan to bargain with United Auto Workers, a national union that represents graduate students at Columbia. This capitulation occurred within a week of graduate students at Brown University voting to unionize, offering renewed hope to UChicago Graduate Students United (GSU)’s own crusade for union recognition. However, UChicago administrators have been steadfast in their refusal to engage with the union, and even then, gaining a seat at the bargaining table is only half the battle. Advocates for graduate workers’ rights should be cautious in their optimism.
The victory at Columbia marks the end of a two-year period during which administrators refused to bargain with Graduate Workers of Columbia, who won the right to unionize in a 2016 case heard before the then mostly Democratic National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Unfortunately, now faced with a NLRB dominated by new Trump appointees, the UChicago GSU lacks the same legal clout. Fearing a legal defeat at the hands of this NLRB—and the long-term damage to graduate student unionization efforts nationwide that would necessarily follow— GSU members voted in February of this year to withdraw their case before the NLRB. While it is still possible to reach a private agreement with the University without the assistance of the NLRB, there is no reason to think the University will budge from its opposition now. The impossibility of the NLRB certifying GSU for the time being only bolsters the University more, as there is no legal ruling requiring the University to engage in negotiations with GSU. In sum, there is nothing stopping UChicago from ghosting grad student organizers for the indefinite future.
What’s more concerning is that once negotiations start with the University, there’s no guarantee that the outcome will benefit graduate students. As UChicago Law professor Omri Ben-Shahar explains in a 2017 piece for Forbes, if universities have to increase benefits in one area, they will likely offset this cost by decreasing benefits in other areas. For instance, the University pays a graduate student more for teaching a class but then offsets that cost with a decrease to her otherwise generous housing stipend. Arguably, a fully accredited union would be able to protest such changes, but if graduate students feel wronged by the University now, unionization won’t necessarily make the relationship between students and administrators any less tense.
The negotiating process can backfire in other ways. If benefits do increase across the board, then the University might admit fewer graduate students. Or, as Ben-Shahar posits in the article, unionization may incentivize universities to treat all graduate students as the same. This approach would decrease the quality of the educational experience, as students working in different disciplines often require radically different resources and standards for supervision. Some GSU members have already expressed discontent with GSU leadership, too, so it’s not hard to imagine some level of disconnect persisting, even after support from University.
Yes, the University is currently unwavering in its resistance, the NLRB is dominated by Trump loyalists, and actually maneuvering union power to score material benefits presents future challenges. However, none of this is a reason to give up hope. The presidency—and the NLRB—will eventually turn blue again; the University can’t stall forever. Moreover, the wait for more auspicious conditions provides an excellent opportunity for GSU to address some of its internal issues and take some time to figure out how best to approach the negotiation process once they’ve won their seat at the table. As long as graduate student organizers stay aware of the possible pitfalls that await them, then they stand to potentially improve the lives of thousands of students over the coming years.
Alex Bisnath is a first-year in the College.