Dear Provost Diermeier,
We write as a group of concerned alumni to express our solidarity with Graduate Students United (GSU) following your June 6 message, “University Position on Graduate Student Unionization.” We take issue with many of the individual claims in your letter, which we find both factually incorrect and ethically untenable. Please find our point-by-point response below.
“Graduate students are essential members of the University’s intellectual community.”
As University of Chicago alumni, we remain forever grateful to the graduate workers who taught our Core courses, language classes, and advanced seminars. But these contributions, of course, were labor, labor without which the University cannot function. If it could, GSU’s three-day industrial action would not have generated nationwide media attention or elicited multiple emails from high-level University administrators. Graduate workers are thus not only “essential members of the University’s intellectual community,” but producers of economic value for the University.
“The University of Chicago is working collaboratively with graduate students and faculty to ensure the continued strength of our doctoral programs.”
As you noted in 2017, “the balance of power has shifted from companies to customers and other stakeholders. Transparency is increasingly in demand, and companies and regulators are forced to respond ever more quickly to this scrutiny.” As alumni who contribute time, money, and social capital to the University, we are among its stakeholders and deserve to participate in its collaborative decision-making. We ask that the University’s treatment of its workers — themselves “stakeholders” in the University’s economy — reflect our collective values.
“[V]arious schools and divisions are considering enhancements to student financial support […] Such improvements may have to stop if the University were to recognize a union.”
According to the National Labor Relations Act, employers may not “threaten employees with adverse consequences” like “loss of benefits or more onerous working conditions” in response to labor actions or unionization efforts. As long as the University persists in mischaracterizing its graduate workers as “students” exclusively, this thinly veiled threat does not violate the letter of the law. It does, however, contradict the University's putative concern for graduate working conditions.
“PhD students receive at least $30,000 annually, fully-paid health insurance premiums, and full tuition for at least the first five years of their programs.”
As you know, GSU is not currently fighting for a wage increase, but for recognition as a collective bargaining entity empowered to negotiate workplace issues — including, for instance, unannounced changes to pay schedules.
Since you bring it up, however, the cited compensation package falls well below Cook County’s approximately $54,986 median earnings for college-educated individuals in 2017 and does not reflect local cost of living, including food and housing expenses. Significant numbers of graduate workers reported being food-insecure in 2018; moreover, with Hyde Park rents topping $1400 on average, graduate workers earning a $30,000 stipend would have to spend 56% of their annual income on housing.
As for healthcare, though “premiums” may be “fully paid,” graduate workers have long maintained the inadequacy of the benefits themselves. The University’s “customer satisfaction surveys,” conducted in 2018, apparently did not ask about healthcare. GSU’s own survey found that 66.4% of respondents lacked dental and 78.4% vision insurance. As alumni, we expect better from a university that compensates its president to the tune of $1.6 million per year.
“Unionization would fundamentally alter the decentralized, faculty-led approach to graduate education that has long been a hallmark of the University of Chicago.”
At the University of Chicago, the process of “unionization” is a fait accompli. Today, GSU seeks not to unionize, but to receive recognition from the University administration. That’s why the signs around campus all say BARGAIN NOW, not UNION NOW.
Furthermore, many local and peer institutions — including UIC, NYU, Harvard, and Columbia — have formally recognized their graduate worker unions without incurring the dire consequences you predict. Faculty at those institutions do not report that the unions interfere with their relationship with graduate students. Peer-reviewed research, such as this 2013 article, has found that “potential harm to faculty-student relationships and academic freedom should not continue to serve as bases for the denial of collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees.”
Both anecdotal and empirical evidence makes plain that any “alterations” proceeding from union recognition would benefit “graduate education.” We are disappointed with the University’s disingenuous conflation of the educational and material conditions of its graduate workers.
“[W]e believe strongly that doctoral education is most impactful when faculty work directly with students, without a third party mediating and defining those relationships.”
There is already a third party mediating this relationship: the University administration, which employs both faculty and graduate workers. Grads do not currently negotiate with faculty over the material conditions of their work such as pay, health insurance, childcare, and office space. These issues fall squarely within the purview of the administration. Allowing graduate workers to negotiate workplace matters with the administration — not the faculty — through a union can only improve doctoral education by removing material obstacles to academic success.
“There is no legally certified union for graduate students.”
Yes, but only because the University refuses to recognize it. According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), federal law allows employees to “persuade an employer to voluntarily recognize a union after showing majority support by signed authorization cards or other means. These agreements are made outside the NLRB process.”
Because graduate workers cannot reasonably expect favorable rulings from a Trump-controlled NLRB, many prospective unions have withdrawn formal petitions to the agency and focused on voluntary recognition efforts instead. It is this alternative path that GSU is asking you to honor.
In many other circumstances, the University maintains policies beyond its bare minimum legal obligation to further its values of rigorous discourse and education. The University has the right and ability to voluntarily recognize a graduate worker union and is deliberately choosing not to.
“The University of Chicago is not opposed to unions.”
Your letter is an expression of opposition to a union.
“We support the right to free expression, but the actions of protestors cannot jeopardize undergraduate and master’s students’ education.”
Again: if GSU’s industrial action has jeopardized undergraduate students’ education, that means they perform essential labor on behalf of the University and should be classified as workers.
In keeping with the University’s unwavering commitment to free speech, we as alumni are taking this opportunity to inform you of our strong support for GSU and their right to be acknowledged as a bargaining entity. Aware that our dollars likely speak louder than our words, we pledge to withhold donations to the University until it recognizes GSU.
As undergraduates at the University of Chicago, we received an amazing, life-changing education. We believe the future of that education depends on the wellbeing of graduate workers and urge the University to recognize GSU and bargain now. It’s the right thing to do.
The full letter, with signatures and comments last updated June 7, can be read below.