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University of Chicago Graduate Student Workers Begin Strike

June 3, 2019, 4:10 PM

Members of a student worker collective at the University of Chicago went on strike June 3 to try to gain recognition of their union in a long-running labor dispute with school administration.

The work stoppage and picketing by the Graduate Students United was approved in a 1,134 to 112 vote and is expected to last at least until Wednesday, June 5. The group is also planning an associated walkout from classes and labs by undergraduate students who support GSU’s efforts.

The labor action could disrupt activities at the end of the academic term, including spring quarter grades and the university’s graduation ceremony June 15. Students said on Twitter shortly after the strike began that the university’s School of Social Service Administration was forced to cancel morning classes.

“The University has planned for a number of contingencies, and is communicating with students to offer guidance,” Jeremy Manier, a university spokesperson, told Bloomberg Law in an email May 31. “We are committed to supporting our students’ successful completion of this academic quarter.” University Dean John Boyer emailed undergraduate students and their parents ahead of the action, urging them to attend class and report unresponsive instructors. Manier told Bloomberg Law that “the College routinely communicates with parents” in response to a question about the messages.

UChicago hasn’t indicated that it will voluntarily recognize the GSU as the union representing most of its graduate student workers. Members voted 1,103-479 in favor of unionizing in late 2017.

Graduate employees, including teacher’s assistants, research assistants, and lecturers, “want UChicago to recognize GSU so that they can collectively bargain over issues such as late pay, inadequate healthcare, and insufficient grievance procedures,” the group said in a press release June 3.

GSU organizers pivoted to a work stoppage and picket lines in conjunction with the National Labor Relations Board gaining a Republican majority. Majority members appointed by President Donald Trump have indicated that they don’t believe graduate student workers are covered by federal laws granting most private sector workers the right to unionize—a reversal from the previous Democratic-majority NLRB.

GSU “was forced to pull the petition with the NLRB that winter to try and protect the legal precedent recognizing grad workers at private universities as workers,” the group said in its press release.

Other unions and private colleges across the country will likely pay close attention to UChicago’s dispute and the effectiveness of the strike.

More Strikes?

The NLRB recently announced that it will issue regulations that most observers expect will exclude student employees from coverage under the National Labor Relations Act.

Strikes were much more common tactics to gain union recognition before Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in the 1930s, William A. Herbert, director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, told Bloomberg Law.

There have been 42 strikes and one lockout at American higher education institutions in the past seven years, according to research by Herbert and Jacob Apkarian, a researcher at the Hunter College Center and professor at York College, City University of New York. Seven of those were by graduate students, 14 by faculty members, and 21 by nonacademic employees.

Herbert’s research notes that exclusions of certain sectors from the NLRA could spur “a return to the more disharmonious labor tactics” that were part of the reason for passing the NLRA and other federal labor statutes. The strategies and tactics employed by organizers and administrations at different schools are likely to vary, though, Herbert cautioned.

Colleges including Brown University, Georgetown University, and Montana State University have reached agreements to allow a third party, like the American Arbitration Association, to hold union elections instead of the NLRB over the past seven years. And others such as New York University, American University, and Tufts University have taken the next step to negotiate collective contracts with the students groups that voted to unionize.

“You have examples not only of universities agreeing to voluntarily recognize a union, or accept the results of an election, but you also have schools being willing to reach collective agreements—and those contracts provide examples of the fruits of collective bargaining,” Herbert said.

“The emphasis is on the word ‘voluntary’, so that requires a will to collectively negotiate,” Herbert said. Some schools will follow those examples, and others, “because of pressure from trustees or administration will dig in their heels and say ‘we’re not going to do that.’”

GSU is jointly affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and the American Association of University Professors.

To contact the reporter on this story: Hassan A. Kanu in Washington at hkanu@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at snadel@bloomberglaw.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bloomberglaw.com