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U. of C. Grad Students Vote on Union Even as Trump Appointments Could Upend Process

The contentious unionization process continues despite the university’s arguments that graduate students are not employees and uncertainty at the federal level.

After a year-long campaign, 2,500 University of Chicago graduate students will cast their vote on forming a union.   Photo: Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune

After a long fight, University of Chicago graduate students are heading to the polls Tuesday and Wednesday to cast a union vote, despite the uncertainty of a potential union’s future with President Donald Trump’s newly approved National Labor Relations Board members.

The vote caps a year-long campaign made possible last fall when the NLRB, which governs private-sector workplaces, ruled that teaching or research assistants at private universities were considered employees with the right to collective bargaining. Since the ruling, graduate students at private universities across the country have started campaigns, inspired by successes at Columbia University and New York University.

The NLRB has gone back and forth on the issue in the past two decades, and it’s unsure how long last year’s ruling will hold, especially with a new Republican majority, which could reverse the ruling if it takes an appeal.

The debate revolves around whether or not graduate students have the standing to unionize. Some university administrations have argued that they are not employees and therefore cannot unionize. Graduate students disagree, arguing that they perform services (conducting research and teaching undergraduates) and are compensated for them. While pursuing their degrees, graduate students “juggle different tasks that must be fulfilled," says Daniela Palmer, a sixth-year evolutionary biology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago. "Between teaching and doing research, it’s not uncommon for graduate students to work all hours of the day.”

Ahead of this week’s vote, the University of Chicago graduate students received a show of support from University of Chicago alum Senator Bernie Sanders, Chelsea Manning,  Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th).

Chicago caught up with Palmer and second-year history Ph.D. student Caine Jordan to discuss the unionization efforts, the outpouring of support, and the impact this election can have elsewhere.

How long has Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago been working toward unionization?

Caine Jordan: The unofficial efforts to unionize started in 2007 with a few people from different departments. It officially began last fall, trying to get as many departments as possible to unionize. 

Daniela Palmer: Graduate Students United has existed since 2007, and has been advocating for graduate students’ rights and other initiatives in the broader community. But the opportunity to legally recognize our union began about a year ago with the [NLRB ruling last fall]. 

Since the fall, what have members of the GSU been doing?

C.J.: We’ve been speaking to our colleagues, having town halls, and making sure they understand what a union at the university would mean. We’re doing outreach with the community to expand the definition of what a graduate student union would look like, and making sure they are part of the decision. 

D.P.: A lot of it has been one-on-one conversations with graduate student workers talking about what works and what doesn’t in their graduate life. Also, discussing what topics are important to them, what can be improved, what can be maintained in the future.

Last month the University asked the NLRB to delay this vote, due to the possibility that the board might overturn its ruling last year. How will that affect this week’s election?

D.P.: We have not heard from the National Labor Relations Board in regards to those two requests. We can’t speculate as to the time of that. But we are moving forward with our plan.

You’ve received support from some high-profile people like Senator Bernie Sanders, Chelsea Manning, and Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa. How are graduate students feeling about this? 

C.J.: I think it’s really energized a lot of people. This show of support puts an extra pep in your step when you go to the polls.

D.P.: It’s great to be recognized by these leaders across the country, but also for students to recognize each other and that the work we do is essential to the university, and we deserve to have a say on these policies that affect us all. I’m confident that we will have a successful week.

Why should graduate students have the right to unionize?

D.P.: Graduate students do the research and teaching that is central to the mission of the University of Chicago. Every graduate student is taught by graduate students in some capacity. We also do most of the research that brings in millions in grant money from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health. It’s for that reason that students strongly feel that they should have a voice in the decisions that affect us.

What kind of impact do you think this vote will have for graduate students in Illinois and across the country?

D.P.: Students have expressed their support from other universities—some that are unionized, and some who are in process of unionizing. The University of Chicago is well known around the country. Folks are looking to see what happens here, and I think that’s really motivating to us. This will hopefully aid in the efforts across the country. As post-doctoral researchers, faculty, and lecturers, we are all subject to the same conditions in different locations.

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