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To: Faculty and Graduate Students
From: Robert J. Zimmer and Daniel Diermeier
Re: NLRB Ruling on Student Assistants
Date: August 24, 2016  

Yesterday, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that student teaching and research assistants at private universities have the right to unionize in their capacity as workers. For a number of months, the University of Chicago community has been engaged in active dialogue on this subject and its potential impact on the College, graduate students, faculty and the University as a whole. In light of the NLRB’s decision, it is more important than ever to reflect on the fundamental nature of education at UChicago, and the potential impact that graduate student unionization in particular could have on the University’s distinctive approach to research and education, including the relationship between graduate students and their faculty advisors.  

It is the collective responsibility of students, faculty, staff and University leaders to ensure that the University of Chicago is a place where students can flourish. Central to the success of graduate students is the intellectual relationship between students and faculty, particularly between students and their advisors. These relationships reflect the University’s character as a place of intellectual openness and scholarly autonomy, where students and faculty constantly work together to push the boundaries of understanding. These formative and mutually advantageous collaborations often move in novel directions, across disciplinary lines and established responsibilities. Each student’s path reflects their own goals, interests, intellectual ambitions, and subject matter.

Ensuring that students are flourishing is not a simple or easy process. Ongoing attention is required to make sure programs are working well and adequately supporting students throughout their time at UChicago and beyond. Our graduate students already are active partners in identifying the elements of a successful education, and they have worked with the faculty, chairs, divisions, schools and the provost’s office to make many improvements. Bearing this progress in mind, and the fact that there is still more work to do, the fundamental question now is whether a graduate student labor union would advance or impede students’ overall educational goals.

While reasonable people can come to different conclusions on this point, it is vital that we maintain the special and individual nature of students’ educational experiences and opportunities for intellectual and professional growth. A graduate student labor union could impede such opportunities and, as a result, be detrimental to students’ education and preparation for future careers. It could also compromise the ability of faculty to mentor and support students on an individualized basis.  

Students follow their own unique paths at the University in coordination with their faculty advisors and do so in a way that is quite different from the well-defined and important work of employees in skilled trades or clerical positions, where the University has had productive relationships with unions for many years. Unionization by its very nature will mean that a labor union, which may be unfamiliar with what is involved in developing outstanding scholars, will come between students and faculty to make crucial decisions on behalf of students. These decisions could range from which classes students teach, to how best to collaborate with scholars in other departments, to the steps students can take to further their long-term career development. Ceding the power to bargain over some or all of these decisions to a union, which by design focuses on the collective interests of members while they are in the union in the short-term, could make it more difficult for students to reach their individual educational goals. 

Recent experiences demonstrate that efforts to enhance the graduate student experience are highly successful when graduate students, faculty, deans and the provost’s office work together directly. Dialogue among students and faculty has led to increased stipends under the Graduate Aid Initiative and increased remuneration for teaching, more support for students in the sciences, expansion of health insurance coverage, child care grants, and major investments in the Chicago Center for Teaching and UChicagoGRAD to help students with fellowships, pedagogical training, writing and presentation skills, and preparing for future careers. It is unclear whether a graduate student labor union would have achieved any of these outcomes.

Faculty and graduate students at the University of Chicago are not only engaged in scholarship, we are stewards of the legacy we have inherited. Together, we will help define the University’s future. If there is a union representation election here, students will have the opportunity to decide what course is best for their own education. We hope all members of our community will take the time to look more deeply into the challenges and potential negative consequences of a union and participate in dialogue around these issues