University of Chicago Graduate Employees File to Form Union with IFT, AFT, AAUP

by Jennifer Visk | May 08, 2017
An official election for union recognition is expected to be held soon.
May 8, 2017

CHICAGO – Today, a strong majority of graduate employees at the University of Chicago filed authorization cards with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold a formal union recognition election. Members of Graduate Students United (GSU) personally visited the regional NLRB office to deliver the cards, signed by grad workers from seven of the University’s divisions. 

An official election for union recognition is now expected to be held before the end of Spring Quarter, with more than 2,000 graduate workers eligible to vote.

Last year, the GSU employees voted to affiliate with the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and American Association of University Professors (AAUP). 

Across the country, graduate workers are unionizing at private colleges in growing numbers, including at Northwestern University where grad employees overwhelmingly voted to affiliate with the IFT and AFT in late 2016.
“Grad employees are the backbone of the University of Chicago,” said Amanda Shubert, a fourth-year doctoral student in English. “As graduate teaching and research assistants, we perform essential work and deserve a seat at the table where decisions are made that affect our lives, those of our students, and the broader community. Forming this union allows us to speak with a strong collective voice.”
“At some point in their time at the University of Chicago, all undergraduates are taught by grad instructors,” said Claudio Sansone, a third-year doctoral student in comparative literature and classics. “We are their teachers and mentors, and students report that graduate instructors often provide the highlight of their UChicago education. It is time for our work to be recognized officially and respected by the administration.”
“As graduate student workers, we experience firsthand what works and what doesn't when it comes to fostering a positive and productive research and training environment,” said Daniela Palmer, a fifth-year doctoral student in evolutionary biology. “By including our perspectives in shaping the campus community, we will promote our shared commitment to scholarship.” 
“The University of Chicago works, in large part, because of the labor performed by graduate employees,” said IFT President Dan Montgomery. “These dedicated educators know that the best way to make change for both teaching and learning conditions is to build power and collaboration at the grass roots. We’re very proud that they’re part of the IFT family, which already includes thousands of higher education faculty, staff, and graduate student employees across the state.”
“There’s a reason why grad employees across the country are raising their voice – they want to have a real say in the decisions that affect their working lives,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “The truth is that graduate employees take on a huge proportion of the work – teaching classes, grading papers, holding office hours – that makes institutions like the University of Chicago run.  A union will help employees fight for important protections, but also help them to realize their vision for a more democratic workplace.”
“We are very excited about the opportunity for the graduate student employees at the University of Chicago to form a union,” said Howard Bunsis, Collective Bargaining Congress Chair of the AAUP. “This will give these dedicated and critical workers the chance to have a voice concerning their employment and protect their academic freedom in their workplace.  The graduate students are simply looking for a voice in the process and a seat at the table, and they believe that a union can help give them that voice.”
Last year, the NLRB formally classified private colleges’ graduate teaching and research assistants as workers.

Learn more about Graduate Students United’s effort here.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the largest U.S. higher education union, already represents more than 25,000 grad employee members across 23 institutions in nine states. 
The Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) represents 103,000 teachers and paraprofessionals in PreK-12 school districts throughout Illinois, faculty and staff at Illinois’ community colleges and universities, public employees under every statewide elected constitutional officer, and retirees. The IFT represents faculty, staff, and graduate workers at the University of Illinois (at the Chicago, Urbana-Champaign, and Springfield campuses), Chicago State University, City Colleges of Chicago, community colleges throughout Cook County, Northeastern Illinois University, Northern Illinois University, and more.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) champions academic freedom, advances shared governance, and promotes economic security for all who teach and conduct research in higher education. Since 1915, the AAUP has shaped American higher education by defending standards that support quality education and ensure higher education’s contribution to the common good.