New UE Local 1103 Was 16 Years in the Making

June 3, 2023

The certification of Graduate Students United-UE as the collective bargaining agent for University of Chicago graduate workers on March 24, 2023 was over 16 years in the making. A photograph of the National Labor Relations Board regional director’s signature resonated especially deeply with many of the senior organizers who had been around for the previous unionization campaign. For current students and employees, alumni, and supporters in the movement, certification did not mark the seven business days from the vote count, but the sixty-five months since UChicago graduate workers voted overwhelmingly to unionize in October 2017. On March 24, the workers took back control of the narrative from an administration that waged one of the most notorious and cynical anti-union campaigns in higher education. Between 2015 and 2019, the UChicago administration relentlessly campaigned in the courtroom, in the press, in campus emails, and in meetings with students against the notion that graduate employees had standing to unionize. This categorical campaign against student workers continues to provide a model for administrators at Duke and Princeton.

After graduate workers voted to be represented by GSU by 1103 to 479 in October 2017, UChicago challenged the certification of the union and appealed to the regional board. After losing that appeal, the administration appealed to the national board in early 2018. GSU, along with other graduate worker unions, decided to strategically pull their petitions in order to avoid an unsympathetic ruling from the national board that threatened to overturn the Columbia decision of 2015, which established the right of private university graduate workers to organize unions. 

GSU continued to organize for recognition, and in 2019 the union waged a three-day recognition strike. The administration swiftly responded in Autumn 2019 by reorganizing graduate labor and funding. UChicago moved to severely curtail the amount of doctoral student teaching labor, and eliminated, on paper, compensation for teaching by guaranteeing a raised minimum stipend. Since 2019, all graduate employees receive a base salary regardless of whether or not they have taught during the year. For years, the administration used this arrangement to claim that none of its graduate student instructors or teaching assistants were employees, but were in fact receiving training. The administration continues to use an absurd phrase - “mentored teaching experiences” - to characterize all lectureships and assistantships. For years, senior graduate workers, faculty, and department administrators have awkwardly stumbled over using the phrase due to a collective resignation and recognition of its roots in a cynical anti-union campaign. 

Several members of the organizing committee during this most recent campaign were around for the last unionization effort and the 2019 strike. Organizer Uday Jain from Social Thought, who organized with GSU from the 2019 strike through the 2023 victory, said, “We outlasted Trump's NLRB, we outlasted the university leadership's blatant disrespect for our rights, we out-organized multiple anti-union whisper campaigns, and we won this year — the strongest we have ever been. I am so proud of us."

The current campaign began in earnest during the end of 2020. When the university shut down during the pandemic, organizing was upended and graduate students launched a number of mutual aid, anti-racism, and emergency funding initiatives to rebuild the union. Significantly, graduate students hardened their resistance to the exorbitant quarterly fees, which were tantamount to a four percent pre-tax deduction on annual stipends. GSU released a public petition in February 2021, and 600 graduate students committed to withhold payment of the fee. After a few months of withholding, organizers learned that once a student balance reached $1500, the administration would threaten students with being forcibly placed on leave, surrendering teaching appointments, stipends, and health insurance.

“1499” became a rallying call and also formed the basis of a coordinated effort among graduate students to keep Bursar balances just below the $1500 threshold. Union members published an article in the university paper about the opaque nature of university Bursar offices, and how UChicago’s had vast discretionary powers to discipline and dismiss students without consulting departments. Organizers recruited faculty to support the campaign, and Directors of Graduate Studies across Humanities and Social Sciences signed onto letters of support. 

By Spring 2021, the organizing committee was still only composed of a dozen regular attendees, primarily in the Social Sciences, Humanities, and professional schools. GSU maintained broad support in the sciences, but the administration swiftly responded to the fee campaign by canceling the student fees in the Biological, Physical, and Molecular Engineering divisions, which gutted organizing around the issue campaign. Organizers in the sciences, primarily Mathematics and Geophysical Sciences, poured their efforts into supporting their comrades in the remaining divisions against the fees.

By the end of 2021, organizers in History, Political Science, Romance Languages, Music, Germanic Studies, English, and Anthropology had built remarkable consensus for militant action. Based on a power analysis, they had done the organizing to get critical masses of lecturers and teaching assistants to simultaneously exceed $1500 in fees owed. In doing so, they forced a mass dismissal threat from the university. Facing mass retaliation, workers conducted face-to-face meetings with administrators, advisors, and department chairs and pressured them to intervene and prevent the imminent disruption of Winter and Spring teaching.

GSU won the full cancellation of the Student Services fee in January 2022. This victory prompted an immediate groundswell in support for unionization, and the union quickly turned its efforts into a campus-wide outreach campaign to recruit new organizers and build a unionization platform. The union returned to doing in-person meetings after we secured a regular space at the Hyde Park Union Church. General Membership Meetings have long been a staple of GSU’s organizing culture, and with a new space the union was able to hold them in person for the first time in over two years. 

Beginning in June 2022, UE organizers started to visit UChicago and train organizers in listwork and “walkthroughs. GSU pulled census data and started mapping the unit of over 3,100 graduate employees. Organizers started doing walkthroughs in the big STEM departments — Computer Science, Physics, Chemistry, and Molecular Engineering. The first Computer Science organizing committee meeting was on the lawn in the science quad; the first Physics lunchtime meeting, which continues to this day as a weekly meeting, was in another science quad. “I think seeing [Physical Sciences] organizing across all departments flourish has been the most exciting change from pre-card campaign to now,” said Rachel Scrandis, an organizing leader in Physics “I remember the first physics OC meeting, and now almost all departments in [the physical sciences division] has a set of dedicated workers that are naturally planning and organizing.”

After GSU organizers did their first walkthrough in the Computer Science department in July 2022, the tactic immediately became and remains the cornerstone of the campaign. Leaders continue to train new organizers on walkthroughs and office conversation, emphasizing the core principle that: where there are walks, the union has a presence, and where the union has a presence, anti-unionism does not have an environment to breathe or grow. 

GSU began asking workers to sign union cards on the first day of Autumn quarter 2022, and signed 1,200 members up in the first 24 hours. Building on the momentum of a successful card launch, organizers were able to build up robust organizing committees in the Molecular Engineering and Biological Sciences division, two areas which had historically lacked a major presence in GSU. The Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering did not exist during the 2017 campaign, and the Biological Sciences Division struggled with an intense anti-union campaign. Reflecting on the change, Sierra Schwabach of Cell and Molecular Biology said, “It seemed that senior graduate workers were more hesitant to support a union, and that hesitation came from union busting efforts on campus stemming from the 2017 campaign. Those hesitations were resolved through meaningful conversations with our colleagues, as well as the swell of union support across campus. Now, the BSD is one of the best organized divisions.” 

When GSU filed for an election at the end of November 2022, we had a majority or supermajority in every single division, including among the Booth School of Business PhDs. The union also organized a swift, impressive campaign in the Harris School of Public Policy when the administration added hundreds of Master of Public Policy students to the unit after initially resisting the inclusion of the school, which is separated from most of campus and whose workforce is especially transient due to short degree programs.

Organizers were particularly proud to achieve an extraordinary supermajority in the Economics Department, with 83 percent signing union cards. “During the card campaign, a faculty member expressed concern that unionization could potentially result in wage compression across the university, insinuating that the Economics Department, with its relatively high stipends, would have relatively little to gain,” said Karen Wu, a bargaining committee member from that department. “Despite this assertion, the graduate workers in the department remained committed to organizing, recognizing the value of supporting our colleagues in other departments and acknowledging that collective action could yield benefits for all of us.”

When January 31 and February 1, 2023 were set as the election dates, energy exploded across the campus. Hundreds of current students saw this as the chance to restore and conclude the 2017 campaign, and hundreds of new organizers and vote captains leapt into action. GSU launched a Vote Yes Petition on January 3, and quickly reached 1600 signatures — a majority of the bargaining unit — in just over two weeks! We walked every single building multiple times and called thousands of our coworkers to turn out and vote. The employer challenged 95 workers on its own list the day of the election, and hundreds more supporters who were excluded also voted challenged ballots. 

Although the number of enrolled PhD and MA students was about the same, more people voted for the union in 2023 than voted in the election in October 2017, and by a wider margin: 1696 to 155.

Graduate workers began organizing at UChicago for guaranteed funding in May 2007. Neomi Rao (Political Science), co-president of GSU during the card campaign and election, expressed a deep sense of gratitude and achievement having finally made it to this point: “It has been an honor to participate in the care, mutuality, and solidarity at the heart of the union which fights the deep isolation and powerlessness imposed on workers in higher ed and beyond,” she said.

GSU was chartered as UE Local 1103 in May, and began bargaining with UChicago on May 31, based on an initial bargaining platform ratified by the membership.

GSU members were assisted by UE Field Organizers Valentina Luketa and John Ocampo, Project Staff Zara Anwarzai, Anne Kavalerchik, Andrew Seber, Katie Shy and Samuel Smucker, and GSU staff Shannon Sheu.


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