Graduate students are workers. What should be an uncontroversial statement has turned into a years-long struggle for labor rights. While graduate students are demanding a seat at the bargaining table and a democratic voice in their workplace, the University of Chicago has fought tooth and nail, paying vast sums to union-busting lawyers in order to put a stop to unionization efforts. The good news is that Graduate Students United (GSU) is fighting back, and they’re fighting for us all.
Graduate students are the invisible labor force that makes this University run. They teach classes, run discussion sections and labs, staff the writing center and special collections, offer language tutorials, grade papers, and hold office hours. Despite the University’s contention that all of this is not work, we know better. We see the time and the energy they put into teaching us undergraduates, and they expect to be compensated fairly for their work. They desire basic benefits like dental insurance and adequate health care, increased support for student parents, and protection from harassment in their labs. And, they want all of these changes in the form of a fair and democratic contract with the University. These changes will go a long way toward making UChicago a more equitable place, and while their working conditions improve, so too will our learning environments. Even though graduate students voted in a legal process with the National Labor Relations Board to be represented by GSU to the University, UChicago refuses to recognize them. Even worse, the University has attempted to use the graduate union to argue, on a national scale, that all graduate unions at private institutions should not exist. As current students and future alums, we should not want this to be the University of Chicago’s legacy. If we want to be ethical students, we have to support the people teaching us and their right to voice these legitimate concerns.
The issues GSU is fighting for affect undergraduates too. For graduate students, getting paid on time is an imperative, and so is housing. As undergraduates, we also have campus jobs and apartments, and certainly can empathize with these struggles. Rising rents and University development plans affect our neighbors in the greater Hyde Park, Kenwood, and Woodlawn areas. GSU knows that our struggles are linked to those of local groups standing up to UChicago’s undemocratic decisions. The administration’s actions have directly impacted University workers and students, as well as members of the South Side community. There is tremendous potential for GSU to advocate for and help create University and citywide improvements in these areas and many more, but they need our support.
As a union that represents a diverse collection of student workers, GSU is organizing with other unions and workers on- and off-campus, including the Student Library Employee Union (SLEU). This represents a huge step in building working class consciousness and power that benefits us all: graduate students, undergraduates, professors, other workers, and several unions and organizers alike.
Most excitingly, these unions are part of a growing national movement. Graduate worker unions have been formally recognized at Harvard, Columbia, and Georgetown, with the administrations of those universities voluntarily agreeing to bargain with the unions. Whether public or private, big or small, university administrations around the country know that graduate students put in an incredible amount of work and have recognized democratic grad employee union rights. The University of Chicago should follow suit, living up to its stated ideals of free expression, academic excellence, and leadership.
All of us must recognize our place in this struggle. Start showing your support by signing the petition for GSU.
—Students Organizing United for Labor (SOUL)