February 26, 2018

University Should Voluntarily Recognize Graduate Union

There's no reason to think UChicago will recognize Graduate Students United, but here's why it should.

Shortly before the graduate student unionization vote last October, we wrote that it would not be in the University’s best interest for it to try to appeal a pro-unionization vote. In the face of an unambiguous result, it would leave graduate students justifiably skeptical that their contributions to campus were being given the weight they deserve. The result of the election, in the end, could hardly have been more clear, and yet the University still opted for a legal challenge.

In the face of sustained legal opposition from the University, and a newly-Republican controlled National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Graduate Students United (GSU) chose this month to withdraw its bid for NLRB-mandated recognition by the University. It took a decade to overturn the last piece of anti-graduate student unionization precedent before the NLRB; GSU’s decision to withdraw, alongside other graduate student unions engaged in similar cases, may preclude a repeat of that long delay. In the interim, they will campaign for voluntary recognition as representatives of the University’s graduate students. In this effort, we can only hope GSU will enjoy the sympathetic support of people across campus who respect the strong desire for representation displayed by October’s vote. It will certainly enjoy ours.

There is precedent for direct recognition even in the limited universe of private university graduate student unionization. Cornell conducted a unionization election outside of the NLRB process and would have directly recognized its graduate student union if it had won (the result of the election was ultimately inconclusive). Four of the nine schools whose graduate students voted in support of unionization since the NLRB reopened the possibility in 2016 decided they would be better off acknowledging the results and moving forward. These schools are joining many long-unionized public colleges and universities, including the Universities of Wisconsin, California, and Illinois.

In the wake of GSU’s decision, Provost Daniel Diermeier announced the launch of a consultative process to improve conditions for graduate students. While such a process isn’t unreasonable, it still wouldn’t replace the leverage that collective bargaining could have offered to graduate students—which was, of course, what graduate students voted for.

There is a concession in a long-standing argument embedded in the message. In the past, there has been some dispute between unionization proponents and opponents about whether various improvements in the conditions were brought about by pressure from the union. Here, in Diermeier’s message, the connection between the efforts of the union and the launch of this process are clear: “The union election outcome last October indicated that a large number of graduate students believe that the University should do more to support them. I unequivocally agree.”

The apparent attitude of the administration means the route to recognition is formidable at least for now. In the long term, we still believe the result is inevitable. Graduate students organized on this campus in a hostile legal environment for a decade. They will continue to do so. If all else fails, they will still be here when partisan control of the NLRB reverts, again giving graduate students access to the protections of federal labor law. Voluntary recognition is a sustainable, productive alternative to this predictable spiral; the University’s leaders need only seize it.