By Meredith Francis
In a dimly lit, Gothic-style church on the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus, several dozen graduate students are taking small steps to make big changes by going old school: forming a legally recognized union.
“The work we do isn’t recognized as a very important part of keeping the university going,” said Claudio Sansone, a member of Graduate Students United and third-year comparative literature doctoral candidate at U of C.
The U of C graduate students are part of a larger push at private universities across the country to form federally recognized unions. The National Labor Relations Board ruled in August that graduate students are now also considered workers.
Previously, they were only considered students, though many graduate students argue because they teach undergraduate classes, conduct research and perform other graduate assistant duties, they should also be considered employees.
Matilda Stubbs, an anthropology doctoral candidate at Northwestern University, said she’s always had to pay employment taxes on wages or stipends she receives, but, as a single mother, wasn’t eligible for certain benefits, like the Family Medical Leave Act.
“Now that we’re legally recognized thanks to the vote from the NLRB, our employment category has shifted,” Stubbs said. “Our number of privileges that we potentially qualify for has grown.”
But both U of C and Northwestern administrations don’t want graduate students to unionize. And for Northwestern, it’s not a new issue, as non-tenured faculty and Northwestern football players have also tried unsuccessfully to unionize. After NLRB decision, Northwestern officials said unionization and collective bargaining “are not the appropriate methods to address graduate student concerns.”
“Days after the NLRB decision came, [Northwestern] had a multipage website that is very anti-union, essentially absolutely discouraging us from recognizing our own labor,” Stubbs said.
And the U of C administration questions whether a “labor union would advance or impede students’ overall educational goals.”
Students at both schools claim the universities haven’t adequately listened to their call for improved health care, child support, support for workplace grievances and more.
“Last year, I got paid six months late, and there wasn’t anything I could do besides continually asking, “Has that paperwork gone through yet?’ ” said Matt Vanderpoel, a fifth-year divinity doctoral candidate at U of C.
But even without legally recognized unions, students have had some success. Both Northwestern and U of C students were able to get improved child-care benefits for graduate students who are parents, including better day care facilities and more private spaces for breastfeeding.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Stubbs said.
And although GSU has had a presence on U of C’s campus since 2007, without a federally recognized union, getting better child support wasn’t easy.
“The amount of effort to get even a few things listened to — and not even the full list — was enormous and took way too much time,” Sansone said. “With a union, they’d be forced to sit down and listen in a much more timely manner.”
While Northwestern and U of C students still have several more steps before they get recognized unions, students at Columbia University in New York will vote on whether they want to start forming a union in early December.
Though Columbia students led the way for private universities across the country, Olga Brudastova, an engineering doctoral student there, said it was only a matter of time before graduate students across the country pushed to have their work recognized.
“The success of this movement might be explained by the fact that the work we are all doing has the same merit no matter where we are performing it, public or private schools, and is essential to the work of the universities we are a part of.”