Research Assistants at the University of Chicago Law School Join Local 1103

April 2, 2024

On March 19, graduate student research assistants (RAs) at the University of Chicago Law School voted 59–29 to join UE Local 1103-Graduate Students United (GSU). This election victory represents the first expansion of one of the newly-established UE grad locals. The vote was the culmination of a swift and thorough worker-led campaign.

Most graduate workers at UChicago voted to form Local 1103 the prior March, but workers in the Law School were not included in the initial unit. The organizing effort in the Law School ran in parallel with bargaining for Local 1103’s first contract.

The effort in the Law School began in November 2023, when Ben Postone, a worker in the Law School, reached out to the local to ask about how to join the union. An organizing committee was quickly assembled, which in addition to Ben initially included Noah Levine, Abigail Neill, and Elias Van Emmerick. The committee was advised by Chris Wilson, a graduate worker in Mathematics and a member of the local bargaining committee. The organizing effort was 100 percent worker-led through the entire campaign

The committee swiftly built a list of RAs, assigned responsibilities, and then talked to as many workers as possible. The organizers identified compensation as the top issue among the workers; RAs in the Law School made only $16 per hour when the campaign began, near the campus-wide floor. Meanwhile, the local was pushing for a significantly higher floor for existing members in bargaining. Other standards tentatively agreed to in bargaining, such as clear work expectations and the right to paid time off when sick, also appealed to many of the workers. In January, the committee began collecting union cards, and within a month over 70 percent of the workers had signed on to join the local.

Shortly after the union filed for an NLRB election and the effort became public, law students in the Federalist Society, a self-described “group of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order,” inserted themselves into the process and began running an anti-union campaign. Many of these students had never even been RAs, but that did not stop them from attempting to portray UE’s calls for peace and a ceasefire in Gaza as anti-Semitic. The group also attempted to spread misinformation, such as the false claim that UE would force members to adopt certain political stances. In fact, discriminating against members for a political view is famously in contradiction with UE’s constitution, and the local fought during bargaining to prevent discrimination based on political views in the workplace.

On election day, grad workers from other parts of campus, including from the biological and physical sciences, joined members of the Law School organizing committee to help get out the vote, calling workers and handing out stickers to supporters. In a last-ditch effort, anti-union campaigners plastered the building with flyers, and several anti-union campaigners who had never worked as RAs attempted to vote. One individual even illegally campaigned directly outside the polling site, and refused to leave until a federal NLRB agent instructed him to. These interlopers were completely unable to shake the organization the workers built, and the law school students voted by a 2-to-1 margin in favor of a union, a raise, and rights in the workplace. Unable to beat UE in a democratic vote, the group has now pivoted to asking the University to un-sign the union contract they just agreed to and which the workers just voted to be put under. 

By joining Local 1103, Law School RAs will enjoy the benefits of the union’s new contract, including a new hourly minimum of $19 per hour — an 18.75 percent raise. Elias said after the vote:

Today, law students resoundingly voted for what members of GSU already know to be true: together, workers are stronger. We heard voter after voter express excitement to join the rest of our campus in working for better wages, labor protections, and the chance to have a voice in their workplace. We're so excited to be a part of GSU and get started on improving this school for every worker.


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