To: Graduate Students and Faculty
From: President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Daniel Diermeier
Subject: Discussions Around Graduate Student Unionization
Date: May 9, 2017
Yesterday, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) seeking to represent graduate students in multiple divisions and schools of the University of Chicago.
Since the ruling by the NLRB last year that granted student teaching and research assistants at private universities the right to unionize, many of our peer institutions have experienced organizing drives and NLRB-supervised elections. The outcomes have been varied: at some universities graduate students voted not to form unions, at others they have voted in favor, and in some cases the results are still being contested. This speaks to the complexity of the question, the fact that reasonable people can come to different conclusions on the issue of graduate student unionization, and the importance of having a thorough, well-informed debate.
At the heart of the debate lie the questions of whether a labor union would advance or impede graduate students’ overall educational goals, and whether graduate students want to work directly with faculty and the University regarding their education or allow a labor union to stand in as their voice. As we wrote to you last August, we believe a graduate student labor union has the potential to affect graduate students, faculty, and the University’s distinctive approach to research and education in many ways.  A union could come between students and faculty to make crucial decisions on behalf of students, focusing on collective interests rather than each student’s individual educational goals. The nature of collective bargaining could also compromise the ability of faculty to mentor and support students on an individualized basis.
A union would not necessarily be an effective advocate for graduate students’ interests. The enhancements of the graduate student experience at UChicago in recent years occurred without union representation; they were the result of direct interaction among graduate students, faculty, deans and the provost’s office. This process of direct, constructive collaboration led to increased stipends under the Graduate Aid Initiative, increased teaching remuneration, more support for students in the sciences, expansion of health insurance coverage and child care grants. It also resulted in major investments in the Chicago Center for Teaching and UChicagoGRAD to help students with fellowships, pedagogical training, writing and presentation skills, and preparation for future careers.
The contention that a labor union could produce better results than graduate students have obtained through direct means is speculative, and there is good reason to doubt it. At present, only one private university – New York University — has entered into a collective bargaining agreement with a graduate student union. (Although graduate labor unions have formed at a number of public institutions, the labor laws applicable to public entities are often materially different than the federal labor law applicable to private universities, which makes public and private universities difficult to compare.) Enhancements to teaching and research remuneration negotiated by the union at NYU have been relatively modest, and it is not clear that they exceed what students would have received without union representation, or that these enhancements outweigh the initiation fee and two percent in dues that the union imposes on students’ funding packages. NYU’s experience has shown the potential for other counterproductive effects, such as the filing of union grievances over academic issues and attempts to infringe upon academic decision-making.
In light of this uncertainty and the importance of the issues, we hope that members of our community will take this opportunity to engage in wide-ranging discussions, applying critical thinking to the issue. Answers to frequently asked questions can be found here (expired link removed). We believe the dialogue on campus should proceed in keeping with the standards of collegiality and intellectual rigor that apply to all academic questions at the University. The quality of that debate, and the extent to which all sides are heard and considered, is of great importance to all of us.
Policy and Administration
Graduate Education