University of Chicago Grad Students, After Being Told Their Labor Isn’t Work, Vote on Union

Daniel Moattar

Graduate students at the University of Chicago begin voting on their union election October 17 (Graduate Students Union via Facebook)

Update: The stu­dents vot­ed to union­ize 1,103 to 479 (with 149 votes challenged).

After months of legal bat­tles, delays and high-dol­lar oppo­si­tion from their admin­is­tra­tion, Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go grad­u­ate stu­dents will vote in a union elec­tion on Octo­ber 17 and 18. A win will make Grad­u­ate Stu­dents Unit­ed (GSU) — affil­i­at­ed with the AFT, IFT and AAUP—the offi­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tion of UChicago’s grad­u­ate students.

The elec­tion is being con­duct­ed against the back­drop of an ongo­ing court bat­tle over grad stu­dent union­iza­tion that rep­re­sents a dou­ble-edged sword for the uni­ver­si­ty. A vic­to­ry would decer­ti­fy the union, and com­pli­cate grad stu­dent orga­niz­ing at pri­vate insti­tu­tions nation­wide. But over the course of the case, the university’s hard­line anti-union state­ments both in and out of court may have helped the union’s cause more than hurt it.

The labor is not work defense

In 2016, in response to a peti­tion by grad­u­ate stu­dents at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, the NLRB ruled that grad­u­ate instruc­tors at pri­vate insti­tu­tions could union­ize, cer­ti­fy­ing that stu­dents can be clas­si­fied as work­ers. The rul­ing set off a wave of union elec­tions at pri­vate insti­tu­tions, includ­ing the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, where grad stu­dents filed for recog­ni­tion this spring. UChicago’s admin­is­tra­tion chal­lenged the fil­ing, argu­ing that while some grad stu­dents are work­ers, its stu­dents are not.

UChica­go insist­ed it wasn’t attack­ing the stan­dard set by the 2016 Colum­bia rul­ing. Columbia’s stu­dents instruc­tors, it con­ced­ed, worked when they taught, where­as UChicago’s didn’t. Accord­ing to the UChica­go admin­is­tra­tion, its grad stu­dents, unlike Columbia’s, didn’t pro­vide any finan­cial ben­e­fit to the uni­ver­si­ty through their teach­ing, tutor­ing, grad­ing or research.

The uni­ver­si­ty’s admin­is­tra­tion had to make provoca­tive claims in sup­port of this argu­ment. First, it main­tained that the entire uni­ver­si­ty is run pri­mar­i­ly for grad­u­ate stu­dents’ ben­e­fit. Qual­i­ty under­grad­u­ate edu­ca­tion, offi­cials tes­ti­fied, was a sec­ond goal.”

UChica­go was also forced to argue that no grad stu­dent labor — includ­ing teach­ing entire cours­es — had a ben­e­fit to the uni­ver­si­ty more impor­tant than the expe­ri­ence it pro­vid­ed grad stu­dents. Pro­fes­sors with admin­is­tra­tive posi­tions and fund­ed chairs tes­ti­fied that grad-stu­dent graders made grad­ing more dif­fi­cult and research assis­tants slowed down their research.

Attor­neys for the uni­ver­si­ty from the inter­na­tion­al firm Proskauer Rose, an employ­er favorite in labor cas­es, issued a stand­ing objec­tion to every use of the word work,” salary,” or com­pen­sa­tion” for grad­u­ate stu­dents’ ser­vices — includ­ing slips by their own wit­ness­es. (Uni­ver­si­ty offi­cials have also opposed any use of labor” and employ­ee” in the same context.)

The uni­ver­si­ty lost its case in an August 8 deci­sion issued by Region­al Direc­tor Peter Sung Ohr. The deci­sion clas­si­fied UChicago’s grad stu­dents as work­ers with­in the Colum­bia stan­dard, upheld their pro­posed bar­gain­ing unit (which UChicago’s admin­is­tra­tion con­test­ed on mul­ti­ple counts), and direct­ed an elec­tion. Ohr includ­ed a sec­tion on grad labor’s ben­e­fits to the uni­ver­si­ty — some depart­ments,” he wrote in the 27-page deci­sion, rely on grad­u­ate stu­dents in order to pro­vide this excel­lent education.”

In the short run, the university’s legal bid may have back­fired. Its argu­ments drew the ire of many grad stu­dents — and some pro­fes­sors — who were sur­prised to be told that their efforts in the class­room, office and lab weren’t work.

One grad­u­ate orga­niz­er tells In These Times that grad­u­ate stu­dents were alien­at­ed by the university’s argu­ment that any ben­e­fit of grad labor was inci­den­tal.”

I think for a lot of peo­ple who were on the fence, hear­ing that was a slap in that face,” says Clau­dio Gonzáles, a GSU orga­niz­er and math­e­mat­ics doc­tor­al student.

The labor that they’re doing needs to be done. There’s no get­ting around this,” says Anton Ford, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy at UChica­go who also tes­ti­fied at the hearing.

The university’s PR blitz against the union may also have done its case more harm than good. I think it was very star­tling to a lot of stu­dents, these lawyers com­ing so aggres­sive­ly at us and the work that we do, the work that we’ve always inter­nal­ized as work,” Gonzáles says.

His­tor­i­cal­ly anti-union, the uni­ver­si­ty has led a recent charge by sev­er­al elite pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties — includ­ing Har­vard, Yale, Colum­bia, Brown and Duke — to block the for­ma­tion of grad unions. Many of those schools bor­row direct­ly from UChicago’s talk­ing points against unionization.

The admin­is­tra­tion warned stu­dents and fac­ul­ty that the union would be an inter­fer­ing third par­ty, gut­ting the university’s prized sta­tus as a home of aca­d­e­m­ic free­dom and inter­fer­ing with direct rela­tion­ships between fac­ul­ty and grad stu­dents. The uni­ver­si­ty has spread this mes­sage through a pol­ished and pro­fes­sion­al web­site, small-group meet­ings with grads oppos­ing the union, and mass emails to grad stu­dents, includ­ing a last-minute sal­vo from exec­u­tive vice provost David Niren­berg in advance of the election.

Yali Amit, a pro­fes­sor of sta­tis­tics at the uni­ver­si­ty since 1991, is skep­ti­cal of these argu­ments. I don’t believe that [the university’s oppo­si­tion] real­ly stems from a wor­ry that some fun­da­men­tal rela­tion­ship between grad stu­dents and fac­ul­ty will change,” he says. I just find it hard to believe.”

The union is a bunch of grad­u­ate stu­dents,” con­tin­ues Amit, who tes­ti­fied for GSU before the NLRB. They’re get­ting sup­port from the AFT, but fun­da­men­tal­ly, the union, the local, is going to be a bunch of grad­u­ate stu­dents that are inter­est­ed in doing their research and get­ting their Ph. D. They’re not inter­est­ed in chang­ing the way the uni­ver­si­ty works.”

A recent move by the uni­ver­si­ty that com­pli­cates the union elec­tion pro­ce­dure, dis­trib­ut­ing vot­ing into four loca­tions based on last name, has reignit­ed GSU claims of major admin obstruc­tion.” Sources present at the pre-elec­tion hear­ing say NLRB rep­re­sen­ta­tives divid­ed the loca­tions at the request of Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go lawyers — a claim the uni­ver­si­ty denies. The loca­tion instruc­tion sheet attrib­ut­es the move to vot­er fraud concerns.

In response to a request for com­ment, a Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go spokesper­son referred In These Times to the university’s Know the Facts” page.

Chang­ing the game

Mean­while, the court bat­tle isn’t over. After los­ing its case, the uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tion fell back on a request for review, which con­tests the region­al­ly bind­ing deci­sion by appeal­ing to the nation­al board. Accord­ing to the admin­is­tra­tion, that request is still under consideration.

The uni­ver­si­ty may be onto some­thing: The NLRB is noto­ri­ous­ly fick­le on pri­vate-school grad­u­ate unions. Since 2000’s New York Uni­ver­si­ty case, which first brought pri­vate uni­ver­si­ty grad­u­ate work­ers under the board’s juris­dic­tion, each pres­i­den­tial admin­is­tra­tion has seen the NLRB flip-flop on the question.

In 2004, George W. Bush’s NLRB appointees turned the tide and sided with Brown University’s admin­is­tra­tion in a rever­sal of the 2000 case. The Brown deci­sion marked a win for that school’s admin­is­tra­tion. Its then-Provost Robert Zim­mer, who issued the university’s pub­lic state­ments against grad stu­dent union­iza­tion, is now the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago’s president.

That deci­sion stood until 2016, when Oba­ma appointees over­turned it in favor of Columbi­a’s grad­u­ate union. A suc­cess­ful appeal by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go won’t over­turn that rul­ing. But it would estab­lish a com­plex and chal­leng­ing stan­dard for pri­vate grad­u­ate unionization.

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion filled the board’s last vacan­cy on Sep­tem­ber 25, with appointees who were vocal­ly opposed by labor. The future of the UChica­go hear­ing — and the entire Colum­bia prece­dent — is in the new board’s hands.

But GSU’s cam­paign has picked up some promi­nent allies: Bernie Sanders addressed a let­ter this week to Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go grad stu­dents in sup­port of their right to union­ize, a high­ly vis­i­ble boost for the union cam­paign in the days before their elec­tion. And on Sat­ur­day, Chelsea Man­ning sent a mes­sage of sol­i­dar­i­ty to GSU mem­bers on Twitter.

What­ev­er the out­come of the elec­tion and the court case, there’s rea­son to believe that the pos­si­bil­i­ty of union­iza­tion has changed the game for grad stu­dents at UChica­go, push­ing admin­is­tra­tors to address qual­i­ty-of-life issues and improve pay and ben­e­fits. It’s pret­ty clear to me that a lot of the ini­tia­tives that the uni­ver­si­ty has under­tak­en for grad­u­ate stu­dents are the result of GSU actions,” Amit says.

At the request of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, this arti­cle has been updat­ed to clar­i­fy that the NLRB has final author­i­ty over elec­tion pro­ce­dures. An ear­li­er ver­sion attrib­uted loca­tion instruc­tions direct­ly to the university.

Limited Time: