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U of Chicago Grad Students Seek to Protect Their Rights with the AAUP
By Andrew Yale

Grad student employees at the University of Chicago have access to a wealth of intellectual resources, but financially the U of C has historically been a space of austerity and meritocratic competition, encouraging entrepreneurial individualism rather than solidarity. In the spring of 2010, Graduate Students United (GSU) at the University of Chicago voted overwhelmingly in favor of jointly affiliating with the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors. Such a partnership combines the AFT’s organizing resources with the AAUP’s championing of academic freedom and shared governance. Now with their support, GSU will continue its organizing, with the aim of achieving decent working conditions for grad employees at the U of C.

When U of C grad students founded Graduate Students United on May 2, 2007 to advocate for grad employees, TAs were paid $1,500 for eleven weeks of work, had to pay $583 per quarter for their own health care, and had no meaningful say in how their working conditions were defined. President Robert Zimmer (total compensation for 2008: $1,162,213) had recently announced a revamping of funding support for incoming PhD students, leaving continuing students in the cold. The new funding regime, first implemented in the fall of 2007, has provided a majority of students in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Divinity School with a standard five-year package of tuition, stipend, and health care. Students in these three units now receive a stipend of $19,500 per year for five years, health insurance for five years, and two summers of funding. However, after the fifth year, unless one teaches or is on a fellowship, a single grad student with no dependents can expect to pay about $6,500 per year in tuition, fees, and health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs (health care costs are much higher for those with kids). Biological and Physical Sciences students have for some time received a stipend of $27,500 per year and health insurance for duration of their programs, and stipends for the approximately 125 doctoral students at the Booth business school range from $34,500 to $37,500 per year.

President Zimmer had been a math professor at the U of C for a couple decades before leaving in 2002 to become Provost at Brown, where he was the public face of that administration’s successful busting of Brown’s grad employee union. He announced the new funding regime at the U of C two years after the Bush National Labor Relations Board issued its infamous “Brown decision,” which denied grad students at private universities the legal right to unionize. Graduate Students United formed initially in response to the exclusion of continuing students from the new aid regime, with a focus on grad students’ roles as employees. While GSU organizers argued over what the precise character of the organization should be – for instance, whether it should advocate for undergrad employees, and whether coursework should be regarded as remunerable work – there was consensus that we organized primarily around the wage relationship.

The U of C’s use of grad student labor has radically changed over the past twenty years. In 1990 undergraduate enrollment was relatively low, and teaching positions were scarce. The awarding of TAships occurred mostly on a patronage basis, with individual faculty choosing who they wanted assisting with their courses. During the 1990s, under President Hugo Sonnenschein, the university dramatically increased undergraduate enrollment, thus greatly increasing the need for graduate instructors. In 2007-08 PhD students filled 2,395 teaching positions, with most of those going to the approximately 2,000 students in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

A question often asked is, what do grad employees at the U of C want? First and foremost, GSU exists to give us a real say in how our working conditions are defined. GSU has had considerable success in improving working conditions, even as a non-recognized union. GSU has staged rallies and actions around issues of health insurance and advanced grad student tuition, met with administrators to discuss the issues, sponsored on-campus talks by Joe Berry and Marc Bousquet, and held regular social events.

After the announcement of the new funding regime, student organizing prompted administration to form a committee to review funding packages for continuing students, resulting in greater funding support for students in years one through five. In the fall of 2008, in response to a public campaign by GSU and a review of grad teacher compensation by a committee of students, faculty and administrators (on which I myself served), Provost Thomas Rosenbaum doubled the pay of TAs, from $1,500 to $3,000, and raised the pay of instructors and other teachers dramatically.

But there is still much that remains unsatisfactory. The Provost subsequently formed committees to address pedagogical training, grievance procedures, and the problem of tuition imposed on advanced grad students (a burden that slows time to degree), yet failed to take any substantive action in response. TAs, instructors and other teachers still do not make a living wage. Grad students after their fifth year pay for their own health insurance, which is now $740 per quarter, a 27% increase on what it was when GSU was founded, and 25% of a TA’s salary. There is no direct provision of child care for grad employees, and no child care subsidy, as at numerous unionized campuses. There are no yearly cost of living adjustments in our pay, even though tuition, insurance, and fees all normally increase by about 5% each year. There is no independent grievance procedure. Science students work in labs year-round, with no meaningfully enforceable workload guidelines, little vacation time, and no guarantee to retain control of one’s intellectual property.

U of C administrators routinely claim institutional poverty when grad students demand improvements in their working conditions, despite the fact that the U of C is one of the wealthiest schools in the country. The U of C endowment’s market value in fiscal year 08-09 was $5,094,087,000, placing it at 11th in the country (in the past decade, it has ranked between 11th and 15th). In recent years the university has embarked on what its alumni magazine touts as its biggest infrastructure expansion since the founding of the university, and has begun an effort to greatly expand the faculty. All of this is consistent with a finding by the AAUP’s Rudy Fichtenbaum that the U of C is in excellent financial health.

Beyond GSU’s responsibility to advocate for grad student employees, the organization seeks to express solidarity with other unions, faculty, and the surrounding community. GSU has rallied with Teamsters Local 743 during contract negotiations, walked the picket line with Local 743 workers, and rallied in support of Republic Windows and Doors workers during their sit-in in December 2008.
GSU activists joined undergrad activist groups and a faculty formation called the Committee for Open Research in Economy and Society to protest the creation of a new research unit called the Milton Friedman Institute, the name articulating what was presumed to be its founders’ commitment to the neoliberal orthodoxy of the Chicago School. The U of C Faculty Senate rarely meets and has very little power.

The U of C is nominally a faculty-run institution, but administrative roles tend to be quite abstracted from faculty roles. CORES faculty argued that the institute, with a projected $200 million budget (half from university monies and half from fundraising efforts), had been conceived without broad faculty input, thus undermining the principle of shared governance.
With regard to community action, GSU has been part of a coalition that worked to improve access to the U of C Hospitals for residents in surrounding communities, oppose the closure of mental health clinics, and re-open the hospital’s trauma center, which closed in 1988. GSU stands in solidarity with K-12 teachers and their unions, currently being scapegoated for underachieving schools by “reformers” aiming to privatize public schools and eliminate tenure and rights won through organizing, such as due process. A strong employee grad union at the U of C would benefit not just grad students at one workplace, but labor organizing in higher ed more generally, and would be able to advocate for labor rights across multiple educational sectors.

The U of C’s most famous former adjunct instructor, President Obama, supported legislation to recognize grad students’ legal right to unionize when he was a US Senator, as one of five co-sponsors of the Teaching and Research Assistant Collective Bargaining Rights Act. An increasing number of grad students at the U of C agree that unionization would be the best way to ensure that we enjoy better working conditions in our roles as teachers and researchers.

Andrew Yale is a graduate student at the University of Chicago and a member of Graduate Students United (uchicagogsu.org).