Unionization Information

Statement of Purpose

This set of pages was designed to answer to the need for a student-to-student information service that would provide a clear introduction to the unionization process, answering many common questions, challenging misconceptions, countering fear-mongering, and decentralizing the control and dissemination of information in order to provide, for the students, a neutral and nuanced environment through which to consider unionization and related issues. As such, this website is another center of information—and while we attempt to keep it updated and accurate we encourage students to inform themselves widely from other reputable sources (our links section contains a number of such alternatives).

A note on neutrality—as mentioned, this website presents an introduction with the hope of empowering students to become better informed and more involved in unionization and its related issues. That being said, it is the CSE's explicit position that neutrality cannot here be defined as simply presenting both sides equally due to the fact that when the communicative ability and the persuasive technology of differing sides of a debate are not equal then neither are their abilities to disseminate information, nor their ability to debate and fact-check each other effectively. This website will not condone or propagate materials that the CSE holds to be obfuscated or oversimplified, the main goal being to thoroughly educate the reader. Media sources are provided through a different optic, in the hope of showing how different sides of the debate play out.

If you have any concerns or believe that certain correction ought to be made, feel free to contact us.

This information service is sponsored by the Executive Slate of UChicago Student Government.


What is unionization?

Unionization is the process by which a set of workers petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for recognition as a bargaining unit for the purpose collective bargaining with their employer. Legal recognition as a union from the NLRB compels the employer to enter into collective bargaining with the union. A union gives workers the collective power to bargain with their employers and also works to serve the wider community of workers at the University who may not at that time be part of the bargaining unit.

What does a union do?

A union is committed to maintaining and improving the wages, benefits, and working conditions of all the members of its bargaining unit. This is achieved through negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with the employer, which is a legally binding labor contract. Union members choose their own bargaining team to represent their interests in negotiations with the employer. Union members also work together to ensure that the collective bargaining agreement is enforced by establishing a grievance procedure that clearly spells out a process to handle disagreements between the employer and bargaining unit members.

What is a bargaining unit?

A bargaining unit, in labor relations, is a group of employees with a clear and identifiable ‘community of interests’ who are represented by a single labor union in collective bargaining and other dealings with administration.

Who sets the union’s bargaining goals?

The bargaining priorities are decided by the membership of the union, often through a bargaining survey and regular communication with the membership. Once the data is collected, members will often meet to determine the final bargaining goals.   

Will the contract affect everyone in the same way?

No, a well-planned and executed contract will reflect the varieties of experiences and different types of labor that take place at any given place of employment. Unions do not set ceilings, but instead set a standard base-line for working conditions, wages and benefits.

Who are the likely members of the bargaining unit?

Any graduate student working as a teaching assistant (TA) or a research assistant (RA) will likely be included in the bargaining unit. Updates will be posted here when they are available. Some undergraduate TAs and RAs are also likely to be included, and they should sign up with GSU for representation. Questions that need definite answers include:

  • What constitutes labor that qualifies a student as a worker?
  • What are the timeframes under which a worker remains in or enters the bargaining unit with respect to current or prospective (contractually promised) employment?

What can be bargained over?

The NLRB mandates that the employer must negotiate in good faith with the union over “wages, hours, and other terms of employment.” Currently, the university administration is the sole determiner of working conditions and policies at the University of Chicago, graduate employees have no voice in determining their own working conditions.

What is GSU?

Graduate Students United (GSU) is an independent organization of graduate students at the University of Chicago. GSU formed in 2007 and, since then, has secured significant pay increases for TAs and lecturers, better healthcare standards, child care stipends, broader parental leave policies, and a freeze in Advanced Residency tuition. GSU has also created a “Survival Guide” for graduate students that includes advice and suggestions on a variety of issues, such as the Affordable Care Act and campus sexual assault.

What are GSU’s future goals?

GSU is dedicated to investigating and improving questions of childcare, sexual assault, grievance support, and healthcare. GSU calls for greater transparency and greater student (and faculty) input in university decision-making. Unionization is the best way to address these concerns since it results in a legally-binding, enforceable contract between graduate student employees and the administration.

Who can join and participate in GSU?

Anyone enrolled in a MA or Ph.D. program within the UChicago community can become a member.

Does the university recognize GSU?

No. GSU is fiscally and administratively independent from the University, and is able to freely and openly speak up on matters of concern. Because GSU is not a legally recognized union, the University administration can chose to address or to ignore concerns raised by GSU and the graduate student body. On a number of occasions the university administration has taken credit for joint achievements with GSU in order to delegitimize GSU’s impact on the student community.

Why should I join?

It is crucial at this juncture that those workers who are in any way likely to be members of the bargaining unit join GSU and sign an authorization card in order to actively voice concerns and contribute to the development of the union’s structure and its potential agenda(s). The strength of the union depends greatly on the strength of its membership. A larger, more engaged membership will be able to negotiate the best possible contract for graduate student employees at the university.

Is GSU connected to other organizations?

GSU is affiliated with the AFT/IFT/AAUP unions (and a recent referendum reconfirmed this affiliation). It is also part of the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions (CGEU) along with 23 other graduate employee unions.

What is involved in the process of becoming unionized?

Graduate employees will be asked to show interest in filing an election petition for recognition as a union by signing an authorization card. An authorization card is a legally binding document, that is filed with the NLRB, which shows interest in becoming a union. The law mandates that a minimum of 30% of the predicted bargaining unit must show interest to file for an election, however, most unions do not file unless there is a majority showing of interest from the bargaining unit. The NLRB will oversee the election through its Illinois branch. If a majority of eligible workers vote to unionize, the NLRB will designate GSU (as an affiliate of AFT/IFT/AAUP) as the exclusive bargaining agent for the graduate employees at the University of Chicago, at which point we can begin negotiating with the university for a contract.

How did the recent NLRB decision change the previous paradigm?

The new NLRB ruling dictates that graduate students at private universities who perform labor for the university other than coursework and personal (dissertation) research are to be legally considered employees, as well as students. See: https://www.nlrb.gov/news-outreach/news-story/board-student-assistants-covered-nlra-0

Why is this happening now?

In 2004, Brown University President Robert Zimmer (now our University president) filed an appeal with the NLRB in response to an attempt by Brown graduate students to unionize, claiming that graduate students did not fit the definition of workers. That appeal, which was upheld by the NLRB, was challenged in 2007 by graduate student employees at the New School and Columbia University. This past summer, the NLRB ruled in favor of the Columbia and New School students, and paved the way for graduate students at private universities to unionize by reaffirming that they are, in fact, legally classified as workers under federal law. This gives graduate student employees at private universities an indisputable legal right to unionize, protected by federal mandate. GSU, in conjunction with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), has now begun the process of forming a collective bargaining unit in anticipation of filing with the NLRB for an election.

How has unionization benefited students at comparable universities?

It’s important to note that graduate employees at public universities have been unionized since the 1970’s. Graduate workers at Berkeley, CUNY, the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison have been unionized for decades and have made tremendous gains to their quality of life. More recently, the University of Connecticut (Contract: http://uconngradunion.org/home/resources/current-members/full-contract/) , and New York University (Contract: http://www.makingabetternyu.org/gsocuaw/read-it/) have unionized and secure contracts that have benefited both graduate workers and the larger university community. These contracts have increased stipends, improved childcare and spousal support, and clarified the teaching and research assignments of graduate workers. Follow the above links for more information.

Will unionization damage my relationship with my professors or my ability to secure employment?

No. If anything, it will improve your relationship. A collective bargaining agreement will not police the everyday relationship you have with your professor, but will aim to improve overall working conditions for all graduate student employees, allowing us to focus our attention on our work and research. The NLRB decision to reverse the Brown case specifically underlines the fact that there has been no evidence of a deterioration in student-faculty relationships as a result of unionized student bodies.

How are unions funded?

Unions are funded through dues paid directly by its membership. Dues are democratically set by the union membership and won’t be collected until we have ratified our first contract.

Can I opt-out of being in the union?

Yes. No one can compel you to join a union. However, all members of a bargaining unit will be covered by a collective bargaining agreement regardless of their membership in the union. Labor contracts negotiate on issues that are global in scope, such as healthcare benefits, so they are universally applied. However, only members will be able to participate in the decision-making processes of the union, such as electing union officers and ratifying future contracts.

How do I get involved and how can I get more information about unionization?

Talk to your Departmental Organizer (DO), or go to uchicagogsu.org for more information (and to sign up). Your DO can give you more detailed information and answer your questions.

Who can I talk to in order to get more information?

Volunteer Departmental Organizers in your departments can give you specific information, answer questions, and take your concerns on board. GSU and the administration have also provided websites. However, since the beginning of the year, the administration has sent out a series of emails suggesting that unionization will damage graduates students in a variety of ways. These arguments rely on mystifying language and scare tactics, and as such they have proven to raise more questions than answers.

What is AFT?

The American Federation of Teachers is national labor union which represents educators from PK-12 through Higher Education, para-professional and educational support staff, nurses and healthcare professional, and public employees. AFT is the largest union of higher educators in the United States and currently represents 25,000 graduate employees at 30 universities in 9 states, including the graduate employees at the University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana and the University of Illinois-Chicago. AFT was founded in Chicago in 1916, it first local union is the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Its mission, “The American Federation of Teachers is a union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and our communities. We are committed to advancing these principles through community engagement, organizing, collective bargaining and political activism, and especially through the work our members do.” The AFT is an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest organization of unions in the United States. 
See: http://www.aft.org/

What is AAUP?

The mission of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is to advance academic freedom and shared governance; to define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education; to promote the economic security of faculty, academic professionals, graduate students, post‐doctoral fellows, and all those engaged in teaching and research in higher education; to help the higher education community organize to make our goals a reality; and to ensure higher education's contribution to the common good. Founded in 1915, the AAUP has helped to shape American higher education by developing the standards and procedures that maintain quality in education and academic freedom in this country's colleges and universities.
See: https://www.aaup.org/

What is IFT?

The Illinois Federation of Teachers is the State affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. The IFT represents 103,000 education and public service professionals throughout the state, including almost 17,000 faculty, staff and graduate employees in 48 locals from universities and community colleges across Illinois.
See: https://www.ift-aft.org

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Tentative Timeline

Autumn 2016: Campaign Staff will be hired by GSU and its affiliates. A campaign office will open in Hyde Park. The negotiations to determine the bargaining unit begin. Card campaign begins.

Winter 2017: The card campaign continues. Organization efforts proceed department by department, and issue by issue, in order to have everyone’s voices heard.

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More Information

Unionization in the Media

What's happening on other campuses, and our own!

University of Chicago

Unionization and Undergraduates


Understanding Graduate Student Unionization and Its Implications—Opinion Pieces

New Yorker
New York Times
The Chronicle
Washington Post

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