Graduate Students Union co-president Claudio Gonzáles and pro-union demonstrators outside U. of C.'s Neubauer Collegium Credit: Deanna Isaacs

Is teaching work? Not if the teacher’s a student at the University of Chicago.

The U. of C. maintains that graduate student teaching (and research) is a purely educational experience, carried out for the benefit of the person doing it.

Never mind that no modern American industry has been better at exploiting labor than its virtuously nonprofit universities, with their armies of underpaid adjuncts and powerless graduate students.

One year ago, U. of C. graduate students—those famously bookish library and lab rats—decided to do something about that.

They voted, by a margin of more than two-to-one (among the 1,582 casting ballots), to unionize. Specific issues they wanted to address included pay schedules and rates (especially in the face of rising rents in Hyde Park), health care, and protection for grad students experiencing discrimination and harassment; above all, they wanted to have a role in determining their own working conditions .

The resulting union, Graduate Students United, affiliated with the American and Illinois Federations of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors, applied for certification with the National Labor Relations Board.

If certification had been granted, the university would have had to recognize the union and negotiate a contract with it. Under the Obama administration, the NLRB gave graduate student workers the green light on unionization, and at numerous other universities, grad student unions had been established.

But Donald Trump had begun filling seats on the NLRB, and this year—before the U. of C. certification had been ruled on—the politics of the board took a harder tilt to the right. As Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers told me, allowing a Trump-dominated NLRB to rule on the U. of C. application would have been a treacherous gamble.

“They could have used the Chicago petition to rule against graduate employees everywhere,” Montgomery says. “They could have decided that the previous labor board erred, these people are not employees, they can’t have a union.”

However: “Without a case before them, they can’t make that ruling. And rather than give them that legal opportunity, UChicago grads pulled their petition.”

But they didn’t give up on the union. Since then, they’ve been trying to get the university to recognize and meet with them, even though it’s not required by law. The administration has repeatedly refused, most recently in response to a request sent by the union October 5.

Last Thursday morning—despite an e-mailed warning from dean John W. Boyer that a protest “would have the effect of disrupting the learning of undergraduate students”—hundreds of union members walked out of their classrooms and laboratories to gather in front of the university’s administration building, flex their group muscle, and demand recognition.

Waving BARGAIN NOW signs and chanting “[U. of C. president Robert] Zimmer, Zimmer, you’re no good / Recognize us like you should!,” they cheered a series of rousing speakers emceed by graduate students Natalia Piland and Pascal Brixel.

Montgomery was first up: “I don’t give a good goddamn what Robert Zimmer says,” he told them. “You are a union!” He was followed by undergraduate Sam Joyce, who declared that undergrads are “proud to stand with grad workers because we know that their working conditions are our learning conditions.” He added, “I didn’t come here because I want a fancy, shiny new dorm or a new conference center or a new luxury hotel. I came here because I want a good education, and I want the people providing that education . . . to have a decent life while they’re teaching here.”

Ben Laurence, a lecturer in the philosophy department and a member of the U. of C.’s nontenure-track faculty union, Faculty Forward, said it took three years of negotiating to get a three-year contract at the U. of C., but told the members of the grad student union that “it can be done, even here.” And Karen Rice, a self-described “grad worker” at Georgetown University, told the crowd how the grad student union there overcame opposition and got the administration to agree to bypass the NLRB and negotiate with them.

The final speaker was GSU copresident Claudio Gonzales, who in an impassioned speech made the most salient point of the day: he said he loved Dean Boyer’s warning letter because the administration “finally had to admit how critical our labor is to making this place go.”

After that, the students and their supporters piled into the street, walking the few blocks to the Neubauer Collegium, where Piland said Zimmer would hear them (they’d heard he was there, though he didn’t make an appearance), and renewed their chants. They finished with a final shout of “We’ll be back” before scattering like so many leaves into the bright October afternoon.

In a statement issued after the demonstration, the university said, “[T]here is no union with legal status as the certified representative of any graduate teaching or research assistants at the University.”

It continued: “We continue to work directly with graduate students on a variety of collaborative efforts across the University, including the Committee on Graduate Education and UChicagoGRAD, to improve the lives, education, and professional development of graduate students.”

That didn’t satisfy Gonzales. “We do not want more focus groups, disempowered individual interventions, or hand-picked and closed-door dean’s councils whose opinions are ignored whenever it is convenient,” he writes in an e-mail. “We deserve a seat at the bargaining table and we will not stop organizing until our union is recognized and we’ve negotiated a fair contract.”   v