Graduate Student Unionization
The University of Chicago is deeply committed to supporting our graduate students. We constantly seek opportunities to improve and enhance graduate education and regularly engage with graduate students and other key stakeholders to obtain feedback. This timeline highlights recent improvements to graduate student education at the University, many of which resulted from direct partnerships among graduate students, faculty, and staff.
In March 2023, the National Labor Relations Board certified the results of a secret ballot election in which a majority of voters cast ballots in favor of union representation by Graduate Students United – United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (GSU-UE). As a result, the University has recognized GSU-UE as the exclusive bargaining agent of a group of graduate students who provide instructional and research services.
The below FAQ provides information and considerations about graduate education and unionization. We encourage all graduate students to learn more about unionization and consider how it will affect them and their programs, now and in the future.
Yes. On March 24, 2023, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certified the results of a secret ballot election in which a majority of voters cast ballots in favor of union representation by Graduate Students United – United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (GSU-UE). As a result, the University has recognized GSU-UE as the exclusive bargaining agent of a group of graduate students who provide instructional and research services. The University is committed to bargaining in good faith with the union over bargaining unit members’ terms and conditions of employment.
The NLRB is an independent agency of the United States government that enforces and administers the National Labor Relations Act, the federal law that gives private sector employees the right to form and join unions, engage in collective bargaining, and go on strike. The NLRB has two principal functions: (i) to hold secret ballot elections to determine if employees wish to be represented by a union and, if so, by which union; and (ii) to prevent and remedy “unfair labor practices” by employers or unions.
What is the significance of GSU-UE’s status as the exclusive bargaining agent for the group of graduate students who provide instructional and research services?
Under the law, the University is required to recognize the union as the exclusive bargaining representative of graduate students who are in the certified unit described below (see “Who is included in the bargaining unit?” question below). Exclusivity means that the University cannot work with any other union or organization, including Graduate Council, on matters affecting wages, hours, or working conditions for graduate students in the certified unit. The University also cannot negotiate directly with any student who is in the union on any matter affecting wages, hours, or working conditions except as permitted by a collective bargaining agreement (often called a CBA or labor agreement) between the University and the union. To negotiate an initial labor agreement, the University and the union must meet and negotiate in good faith, which means meeting at mutually agreed upon reasonable times and places with the goal of reaching an agreement on wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.
The bargaining unit as proposed by GSU-UE and certified by the NLRB is: “All graduate students enrolled in University of Chicago degree programs who are employed to provide instructional or research services, including but not limited to Teaching Assistants, Research Assistants, Course/Teaching Assistants, Graduate Student Instructors, Graduate Student Lecturers, Instructional Graders, Language Assistants, Preceptors, Research Interns, Teaching Consultants, CCTL Teaching Fellows, Teaching Interns, Teaching Lab Assistants, Tutors, Writing Interns, and Writing Lectors, in the Divinity School, the Crown Family School of Social Work Policy and Practice, Division of the Social Sciences, Division of the Humanities, Division of the Biological Sciences, Division of the Physical Sciences, Booth School of Business, Irving B. Harris School of Public Policy, and the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering. The bargaining unit excludes: undergraduate students, graduate students who are not employed to provide instructional or research services, Workshop Coordinators, Peer Mentors, office clerical employees, managers, guards and supervisors as defined in the Act.”
Yes. International graduate students who meet the criteria for being in the union (that is, provide instructional or research services in the appropriate academic divisions and schools) are in the bargaining unit. Being in a union does not impact student visas or immigration status.
Once a graduate student is in the bargaining unit, are they in the unit for duration of their time in the degree program?
No. Graduate students will alternate between being in the bargaining unit and out of the bargaining unit based on the NLRB’s definition of who is in the bargaining unit. Graduate students are in the bargaining unit only in the academic quarters during which they are providing instructional or research services for the University.
Collective bargaining is the process by which unions and employers negotiate employees’ terms and conditions of employment. During collective bargaining, the union bargains on behalf of members of the bargaining unit it represents for pay, benefits, and working conditions.
Collective bargaining normally happens in a series of meetings at which representatives of the union and the employer exchange written proposals for a collective bargaining agreement (also called a union contract or a labor agreement). Collective bargaining can take months and sometimes more than a year, especially if the two sides are negotiating their first agreement together. During this time, the National Labor Relations Act requires the employer and the union to engage in “good faith” negotiations over terms and conditions of employment, which are often called “mandatory subjects of bargaining.” This duty to bargain in good faith means the parties must meet, confer, and consider each other’s proposals. However, the duty does not require compromise, concessions, or agreement to any particular proposal, and it does not require the parties to reach an overall agreement.
Representatives of both the University and the union will sit at the bargaining table. The University likely will be represented at the bargaining table by labor relations professionals and knowledgeable administrators. The union will pick its own bargaining team, which might include graduate students and representatives of the national union.
Federal law does not mandate how a union or an employer determine their respective agendas for bargaining. Each side will develop contract proposals and strategies based on what they believe are their best interests.
The National Labor Relations Act requires employers and unions to bargain collectively over “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment”—concepts that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the federal courts have interpreted broadly. Due to limited rulings and a lack of established precedent, the NLRB and federal courts have offered little clarity as to what are “terms and conditions of employment” for graduate students whose teaching and research is part of their academic training.
It depends on the length of each contract, which itself is an issue for negotiation at the bargaining table. The parties are obligated to negotiate a new contract only at the expiration of the previous contract.
There is no mandated timetable for negotiations. Some contract negotiations move quickly, while other negotiations involve many issues that are not easily resolved and take much longer. It can take many months and sometimes years to reach a contract. First contracts usually take longer to reach than subsequent contracts. A 2021 analysis conducted and published by Bloomberg Law found that first contracts took an average of 409 days to negotiate.
Yes. Collective bargaining is, fundamentally, collective in nature. The union speaks for all graduate students in the bargaining unit, and the provisions in a contract apply to all members, unless exceptions and differences are provided for in the contract.
Can the University make exceptions to contract provisions to accommodate the individual needs of individual graduate students?
No, unless such exceptions were provided for in the contract or otherwise agreed to by the union, individual student needs that are in conflict with the contract provisions cannot be accommodated.
If the University wants to improve a graduate student benefit provided for in the contract, can it do so before the next contract is negotiated?
Only if the University and the union specifically bargain for such flexibility and include it in the contract, or if the union consents to the change on an ad hoc basis.
The University is committed to bargaining in good faith with GSU-UE, and we are hopeful that through negotiations we will come to a mutually agreed upon contract. In negotiations when the parties cannot reach agreement after engaging in good faith bargaining, in general the employer makes its final proposal, often called a “last, best, and final offer.” In response, the union normally will ask its members to vote on the proposal. If the members of the bargaining unit vote to accept (“ratify”) the offer, then the parties have a collective bargaining agreement. If the members of the bargaining unit reject the offer, then there is no agreement. If there is no agreement, the union may decide to strike. Also, if a genuine impasse is reached, the employer has the right to implement unilaterally its last, best, and final offer, though the parties are still obligated to continue bargaining in an effort to reach an agreement. However, it is often difficult to determine with confidence that the parties have reached impasse and the issue often is litigated before the NLRB and in the courts.
The National Labor Relations Act does not mandate inclusion of any particular subject or provision. Collective bargaining agreements usually include provisions on hours of work, compensation, benefits, and workload, but the law does not require that these provisions be in a contract. Ultimately, what is and is not in a contract depends on what the two sides agree to include and exclude, as the law requires the parties to engage in good faith negotiations over mandatory subjects of bargaining, but does not require either side to agree to any particular terms. For this reason, the contents of labor contracts vary greatly within and across employers, and the inclusion or exclusion of a provision in one contract does not mean that it will be in any other contract, even among contracts entered into by a single employer with different labor unions. For instance, the fact that a given clause is in a graduate student union contract at another university does not mean it will be in the contract at the University of Chicago. Likewise, clauses found in contracts at the University covering staff employees or instructors in the College will not necessarily also be in a contract covering graduate teaching and research assistants.
Federal labor law distinguishes between “mandatory subjects of bargaining” and “permissive subjects of bargaining.” Generally, mandatory bargaining subjects of bargaining include wages, work hours, pay, health insurance, retirement plans, appointment duration, disciplinary procedures, etc. Permissive subjects of bargaining are those items over which bargaining is neither prohibited nor compelled, i.e., neither party is required to bargain over a permissive subject and the parties cannot pursue permissive subjects of bargaining to the point of impasse. Decisions that are essential to the employer’s operation or that only indirectly affect compensation, benefits, and working conditions would be considered permissive subjects of bargaining.
Often in labor contracts, employers expressly reserve their right to run their operations, and this reservation of rights is embodied in what is called a “management rights” clause. Although no one can predict what might be included in a management rights clause, it is helpful to consider the management rights clause that Columbia University negotiated with the United Auto Workers, which represents graduate students at Columbia. Here is the management rights clause from the current Columbia collective bargaining agreement:
- The Management and Academic rights of the University include, but are not limited to, the right to:
- Establish, plan, direct and control the University’s organizational structure, missions, programs, objectives, services, activities, resources and priorities;
- Establish and administer procedures, rules and regulations, and direct and control University operations, including the subcontracting of all or any portion of any operations;
- Alter, extend or discontinue existing equipment, facilities, and location of operations;
- Recruit, hire, appoint, assign, schedule, transfer, train, supervise, or evaluate Student Employees;
- Determine or modify the number, qualifications, scheduling, responsibilities and assignments of Student Employees;
- Establish, maintain, modify or enforce standards of education, performance, conduct, order and safety, and to establish and revise disciplinary policies to address violations of these standards;
- Evaluate, determine the content of evaluations, and determine the processes and criteria by which Student Employees’ performance is evaluated;
- Establish and require Student Employees to observe University rules and regulations;
- Establish or modify the academic calendars, including holidays and holiday scheduling;
- Assign work locations;
- Schedule hours of work;
- Determine who is taught, what is taught, how such content is taught and who delivers the instruction;
- Determine in its sole discretion all matters relating to faculty hiring and tenure, admissions and appointments, admission standards, student matriculation, graduation standards, assessment of student work and grades, and determinations as to students’ academic progress;
- Establish tuition, fees, and charges of general application;
- Determine matters involving financial aid, including, but not limited to, recipients of financial aid and the terms of financial aid;
- Decide matters related to research methodology and materials;
- Decide matters related to grants including, but not limited to, application, selection, funding, administration, usage, accountability and termination;
- Decide whether to create, eliminate, combine, or modify academic, outreach, service and research programs;
- Decide matters related to housing for Student Employees covered by this Agreement;
- Exercise sole authority on all decisions involving academic matters, and academic standards.
How will individual graduate students be able to ensure that their concerns are addressed in the collective bargaining agreement?
While any union may solicit individuals’ concerns, it is not required to do so. Even if a union invites students to suggest contract proposals, the union cannot guarantee that some or any of those concerns will be addressed in the collective bargaining agreement. There is no way for an individual to ensure that their concerns are adequately addressed, because a small bargaining team negotiates the collective bargaining agreement and does so on behalf of the entire unit.
What will happen to existing funding and benefits during contract negotiations and until a collective bargaining agreement is finalized?
The University is required to maintain the status quo with respect to graduate student “terms and conditions of employment” during this interim period. Generally, this means that the University cannot unilaterally change pay, benefits, or certain other aspects of employment without first negotiating with the union.
Yes, unions normally collect mandatory dues from its members, typically requiring students to agree to an automatic payroll deduction. Sometimes dues are a set annual rate and other times they are a percentage of wages. Unions use dues to cover the costs of negotiating a contract, contract administration, and grievance resolution. Unions may also use dues to organize employees at other employers and to make political contributions. The union also can require bargaining unit members to pay initiation fees, and the failure to pay dues or fees could result in termination of employment.
When negotiating a labor contract, the University and union may agree to include a “union security clause” in the collective bargaining agreement. Usually, these types of contractual provisions require all members of the bargaining unit who do not become dues-paying members of the union to pay an “agency fee” to the union, which is a service charge that contributes to the costs borne by the union in administering the labor agreement. In short, graduate students could decide not to join the union or pay dues, but they cannot opt out of being represented by the union and may be required to pay an “agency fee” to the union.
Nobody can say with certainty, but often unions negotiate for a work environment that is subject to contractual rules and requirements that could represent a departure from traditionally informal and individualized graduate student-faculty relationships.
We will not know until a labor agreement is negotiated and ratified. Stipends and benefits could decrease, increase, or stay the same.
Once a union is voted in it is in place indefinitely and is difficult to remove. Should graduate students decide they would like to remove the union, they will need to file a “decertification” petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). A decertification petition cannot be filed with the NLRB during the one-year period that follows the initial certification of the union, and if the University and the union reach agreement on a labor contract, the contract would bar the filing of a decertification petition until a 30-day window near the end of the contract term.
Will union representation impact grant-funded graduate students differently than non-grant-funded graduate students?
It’s not possible to know for sure. As noted, stipends and benefits may stay the same, increase, or decrease as the result of contract negotiations, and this is true regardless of the funding source. Naturally, stipend and benefit increases may impact the level of financial support faculty members may be able to fund from their grants, and just as decreases may result in more grant-funded graduate students, increases may result in a decrease.
Will unionization impact working hours for laboratory-based graduate students in the bargaining unit?
Once again, it’s not possible to know for sure. Working hours are a mandatory subject of bargaining and thus will be negotiated at the bargaining table.
In what circumstances do students in the bargaining unit have the right to be accompanied by a union representative?
Federal labor law gives union-represented employees the right to union representation only during investigatory interviews that are related to employment misconduct and reasonably might result in discipline. This is sometimes referred to as Weingarten Rights and it applies to investigatory interviews conducted by the University in relation to possible employment misconduct, i.e., misconduct that arises out of the employment relationship and in the course of performing employment-related responsibilities. The right to union representation does not apply to students in their capacity as students and therefore does not apply to meetings regarding academic matters, including those involving academic evaluation or assessment, determination of academic good standing, completion of non-employment-related degree or program requirements, or progress towards the degree. The right to union representation also does not apply to general employment-related meetings that are unrelated to misconduct (e.g., trainings, regular supervisory meetings, conversations about wages and hours).
Graduate Student Support and Reporting Concerns
The typical PhD student pays no tuition. Tuition rates vary by division and school and by year in the program: in 2022–23 tuition costs between $49,734 and $70,056 annually in the first four years of the PhD. The University of Chicago does not admit students to PhD programs without full tuition financial support. PhD students have no out-of-pocket costs for tuition, and they also receive either University or external funding to cover University Student Health Insurance Plan (U-SHIP) health insurance premiums and the Student Services Fee for the duration of their degree program.
Yes. The University ensures that PhD students receive an annual stipend to support their studies and funding for their individual U-SHIP health insurance premiums and Student Services Fee.
The current minimum annual funding for PhD students is $33,000. It will increase to $37,000 for the 2023–2024 academic year.
Yes, some programs have a higher set minimum stipend.
The University has endeavored to raise the annual stipend or other support annually and intends to continue this practice.
PhD students are required to have U-SHIP, and the annual premiums (currently $4,800) are fully paid for at no cost to the student. Staff and faculty pay part of their health insurance premiums, but PhD students do not pay any part of their individual health insurance premiums.
PhD students have access to optional dental and vision insurance plans. Students who elect to purchase dental or vision insurance pay the premium themselves, as is the case with staff and faculty, who pay dental and vision insurance premiums if they elect to purchase them. The University does not pay premiums for employees’ or students’ dental or vision insurance.
The amount of required teaching can vary from student to student as it is dependent upon the nature of the program and the training required. During their degree program, a typical PhD student in the humanities or social sciences is required to be a teaching assistant (TA) in five quarter-long courses or the equivalent (in some programs, teaching a stand-alone course counts as two TAships). (A six-year degree program has 24 quarters.) In most STEM programs, students serve as a TA for fewer than five quarters.
Although the per-student cost to the University varies based on the number of years the student takes courses and the time they take for the research, writing, and defense of their dissertation, in general the investment in paying for a student to complete a PhD, which includes annual tuition, stipend to the student, paid health insurance premiums, and paid student fees, is approximately $500,000.
The University offers free use of the Family Resource Center, which is a drop-in center that offers play space and family-friendly programs. There is also a need-based childcare stipend of $2,000 per year that student parents can apply for on an annual basis.
In 2022, the University created a new position of Associate Director of Graduate Student Affairs in UChicagoGRAD and this role focuses on grievance policies, education and trainings, and grievance reporting. Additionally, all graduate divisions and schools now have implemented and are administering new grievance policies that align with the University Grievance Policy for Graduate Students.