Why I’m Voting for the Union: UChicago Graduate Workers Mobilize for Recognition

by Parker Robbins, Graduate Students United – United Electrical Workers (personal capacity)

Graduate workers are the backbone of American universities: we teach classes, conduct research, and are severely overworked and underpaid. According to a survey of University of California (UC) workers by the United Auto Workers, 92 percent of graduate workers spent more than 30 percent — many over 50 percent — of their income on housing (Labor Notes, 11/23/22). 

Faced with these appalling conditions, 48,000 University of California academic workers went on strike for better pay in mid-November. This was the largest strike of 2022 and the largest ever academic workers’ strike. Striking graduate workers did not back down, threatening to withhold grades until UC came to the table. On December 16, the union and UC reached a tentative agreement that included an average salary increase of 26% over the next three years.

The UC strike and other graduate worker struggles have clearly shown that we can win better pay, better working conditions, and more by banding together, making our demands heard, and — when necessary — withholding our labor. That’s why I am a proud member of my union, Graduate Students United – United Electrical Workers (GSU-UE), at the University of Chicago, where I am a Ph.D. student and research assistant.

GSU was established in 2007 for graduate workers at the University of Chicago to stand together and fight for better conditions. Despite the importance of our work to their profits, UChicago administrators have repeatedly refused to recognize our union. Although we have not yet gained official recognition from the University, we have already seen what we can win when we stand together in solidarity: in 2021, GSU mounted a successful campaign against a yearly “pay-to-work” student fee of over $1000.

Now, we say enough is enough! We will no longer let UChicago administration refuse to negotiate with us. Over the summer, we voted to affiliate with United Electrical Workers, who helped MIT graduate workers run a successful unionization campaign earlier this year. We also voted on a five-point platform: A Living Wage, Always; Expanded Benefits; Equitable Policies; International Student Support; and Transparency and Democracy. Winning official recognition will expand our capacity to reach these aims.

This fall, a majority of UChicago graduate workers — over 2000 — signed union cards, which have been delivered to the NLRB to trigger a union recognition election. When that election comes around, I’ll be voting yes! But my individual vote is not enough: ultimately, the success of this campaign will rely on the hard work of rank-and-file union members. As we did during the initial phase of our union drive, we will be out picketing and rallying to raise our profile on campus and build support among graduate workers, undergraduates, staff, and faculty for a “YES!” vote. Union members are also planning department walkthroughs and lab visits to build the campaign, where we will explain the benefits of unionizing to fellow graduate workers and encourage them to vote yes. 

The University is already feeling the pressure: on January 3, UChicago administration announced that the minimum stipend would be raised by $4,000 to $37,000 annually starting this autumn. This concession is a direct result of our organizing efforts: if the University did not see the energy and support behind our campaign, they would not make such a significant concession. Indeed, the University will do anything it can in a last-ditch attempt to convince graduate workers that we don’t need a union. But we cannot be bought for $4,000. To realize our demands, especially “A Living Wage, Always,” we need our own independent and democratic union body to negotiate with the University for all of us.

To win the election, we as members need to mobilize ourselves to organize and campaign for the union — not only to win the election but also to develop ourselves into a group of fighting graduate workers prepared to put in the work to realize our platform. After all, recognition is just the beginning! We will need to remain dedicated and active as we negotiate our first contract, resolve grievances, defend ourselves and other members, and fight for better working conditions. We will need to remain the strength of the union, ready to continue discussing and debating what is needed in the workplace and to mobilize as needed. When we come together in solidarity, there is no limit to what a democratic, fighting union can accomplish! 

Image credit: Samuel Smucker (used with permission)