The University 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. 

The University values open discourse and free expression, and we encourage members of the campus community with a wide range of perspectives on unionization to join the conversation about this important topic. The University’s position is that unionization is not in the best interest of our graduate students. However, this is a complex topic on which reasonable people can disagree. 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.

Unionization will also have a lasting impact on our campus—once a union is certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) as the exclusive representative of a bargaining unit, it remains so indefinitely. Should Graduate Students United - United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (GSU-UE) be certified by the NLRB, it will represent all current and future students in the bargaining unit, regardless of whether students wish to be members of the union. It is because of this near permanent status we ask all interested parties to review the following FAQ.

Graduate Student FAQs on Unionization

Overview of Unionization

A union is an organization that serves as an agent representing a specific group of employees. This group is called a “bargaining unit.” A union negotiates on behalf of the bargaining unit to establish collective terms and conditions of employment, such as wages and benefits.

Graduate Students United (GSU) is an organization of University of Chicago graduate students interested in forming a union to represent them and bargain on their behalf. GSU is affiliated with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE).

Normally, a group of workers that wants to unionize will affiliate with an established labor union for purposes of organizing a new chapter, or “local.” Once the group has affiliated with a labor union, union organizers will collect “authorization cards.” If a union collects enough cards to constitute a valid “showing of interest” (generally a showing that 30 percent or more of the employees the union seeks to represent want union representation), the union can file a “representation petition” with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal governmental agency charged with establishing labor policy for private employers and unions. The NLRB then will hold a secret-ballot election to determine if a majority of those individuals in the petitioned-for bargaining unit wish to be represented by the union.

A representation election is a secret-ballot election conducted and supervised by representatives of the NLRB. At the University of Chicago, voting will take place at easily accessible locations on campus on a specified day, during specified hours, or via a mail-in process.

Yes. In December 2022, GSU-UE filed an election petition with the NLRB by which it is seeking to become the certified bargaining agent for current and future graduate students who are engaged in teaching and research activities at the University. With oversight by the NLRB, the University and GSU-UE have reached a stipulated election agreement regarding the time, location, and eligible voters for the election. The election will be held on Tuesday, January 31, and Wednesday, February 1, with voting open to eligible graduate students at several campus locations. Additional information about voter eligibility, the voting process, and timing and location details will be shared with eligible graduate students in advance of the election.

How Unionization Processes Work

Authorization cards are written declarations signed (in-person or electronically) by members of a potential bargaining unit declaring an individual’s desire to have a union speak on their behalf for all matters related to wages, benefits, hours of work, and other working conditions. Typically, unions collect authorization cards as part of an organizing drive—that is, an attempt to show that there is a substantial interest among workers in unionizing and a desire to have the union serve as the exclusive bargaining agent. Each eligible voter is always free to vote however the voter wants in the secret ballot election, regardless of whether the voter previously signed an authorization card. Having signed an authorization card does not commit a graduate student to voting in favor of the union in the secret ballot election.

Union representation is determined by a secret-ballot election in which those eligible to vote are invited to vote “yes” or “no” on the question of union representation. If a majority of those who vote choose union representation, all eligible students, even those who chose not to vote—and all future eligible students—would be exclusively represented by the union in their dealings with the University concerning wages, benefits, and other working conditions.

Based on an agreement reached by the University and the union, and approved by the NLRB, if the union wins the election and the NLRB certifies it as the exclusive bargaining agent, it will represent student as follows:

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.

Based the same University-union agreement, if the union wins the election and is certified by the NLRB, then the following categories of people will not be represented by the union for purposes of collective bargaining:

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.

 

Based on an agreement reached by the University and the union, and approved by the NLRB, the following students are eligible to vote in the election:

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.

Based the same agreement, the following categories of people are ineligible to vote in the election:

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.

No. The results of any election would bind everyone in the bargaining unit, including students who do not vote, students who vote “no,” and future students who were not even admitted at the time of the election.

Who Would Be in a Graduate Student Bargaining Unit?

Yes. International student status does not affect eligibility to be included in the union; the process for determining who is included in the bargaining unit applies to all graduate students regardless of immigration status. There are no impacts on student visas or immigration status related to the election or membership in a union.

Yes. Because a labor union generally represents students only related to their teaching and research positions and not in their capacity as students, students could be in the bargaining unit and be subject to union representation only when serving in teaching and research positions, but not in the bargaining unit and not subject to union representation at other times during their degree program at the University when they do not hold research appointments or teaching appointments.

Yes, but this is not typical. A bargaining unit can change if the union and the employer agree to change it. The bargaining unit can also change if either the union or the employer files a “unit clarification petition,” which is a formal request that the NLRB revise the parameters of the certified bargaining unit. Unless otherwise agreed to by the parties, the union initially proposes a bargaining unit when it files an election petition with the NLRB, and the NLRB ultimately decides the appropriate bargaining unit and who is eligible to vote.

Union Dues

Union dues are a regular payment of money made by union members to their union. Union dues are set by the union, not by the University, and are not subject to negotiation. Union dues are essentially the price of membership, and they are used to fund activities the union engages in, pay union officials’ salaries and benefits, and otherwise advance the union’s local and national agendas. Typically, union-represented employees are required to sign a dues-deduction card which allows the University to deduct monthly dues and initiation fees directly from their paychecks in the same manner as payroll taxes.

Yes. All students who are categorized as in the bargaining unit (namely, all students who have teaching or research appointments) would be represented by the union, and unions typically seek to compel members of a bargaining unit either to become dues-paying union members or to pay the union an “agency” or “representation” fee (typically a similar amount to dues).

We do not know: it is entirely up to the union. Based on a review of UE’s charges to employees it represents elsewhere and the amount GSU has identified as UE’s “real” union dues, union members at the University of Chicago might expect to pay about $500 in annual dues if they are in the union every quarter. If the bargaining unit consists of thousands of graduate students, our graduate students could pay over $1 million in union dues annually.

A union would represent every person in the bargaining unit. Under federal labor law, a union can bargain for a provision in a collective bargaining agreement that compels members of a bargaining unit either to become dues-paying union members or to pay the union an “agency” or “representation” fee (typically a similar amount to dues). Sometimes dues are a flat rate, while other times they are a percentage of wages. The union also could require bargaining unit members to pay “initiation” fees. Depending on the terms of the labor contract, the University could have no choice but to abruptly end a student’s teaching or research appointment if they fail to pay dues.

How Does the University Currently Support its PhD Students?

The typical PhD student pays no tuition at all. Tuition rates vary by division and school and by year in the program: 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.

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.

Choosing Between Unionization and Direct Engagement

Graduate students are essential members of our community. The positive changes for graduate students in recent years demonstrate what is possible through direct engagement and collaboration. The University will continue to engage with graduate students through many direct channels, which we strongly believe is more responsive to students and better suited to our approach to graduate education than having a third-party representative like a union, which would represent only a certain population of graduate students and only certain aspects of the graduate student experience. 

Direct engagement has proven successful at addressing the interests of graduate students holistically and effecting a wide variety of positive change to improve the graduate student experience. In contrast, collective bargaining agreements can take a year or even longer to negotiate, and new issues typically cannot be addressed without additional formal negotiations. A union also can collect millions of dollars in direct expenses from graduate students through dues, and the University believes improvements to the graduate student experience should be made through direct engagement and committee representation without cost to the students. 

There is a broad spectrum of viewpoints on the topic of unionization, and the University encourages members of our community to express their views and to engage in spirited and respectful debate. This is a complex subject on which reasonable people can disagree. Regardless of what graduate students decide about having a union, the University will remain fundamentally committed to enabling all graduate students to thrive intellectually and evolve into independent scholars who make substantial contributions to their fields. 

In recent years, graduate students, faculty, and staff have worked together to transform the University’s support for graduate education. These improvements—the result of the engagement of elected graduate students, representing all divisions and schools; University-wide committees and boards with student representatives; and division- and school-level student advisory boards—reflect the commitment of many stakeholders at the University to continuously enhance conditions for graduate students and ensure that graduate students have a voice. Feedback from students, faculty, and staff who have participated in these processes indicates that this collaborative approach has been effective in identifying and advancing graduate students’ interests, with particular momentum and success in recent years. 

This timeline highlights many recent improvements to graduate student education at the University. Among many notable improvements are regular increases to PhD stipends; opening a new Graduate Student Lounge; ongoing improvements to payment systems for graduate students; payment of U-SHIP premiums for all PhD students; payment of the Student Services Fee for all PhD students; and new staff resources and support in UChicagoGRAD for international students and to address student payments and grievance policies and procedures.

Graduate student voices matter at the University of Chicago, and there are many ways for PhD students to engage directly on issues that affect them. Within the divisions and schools, students provide input and shape decisions through departmental mechanisms, divisional mechanisms (e.g., Dean’s Student Advisory Committees), and across the University through Graduate Council and a wide range of office or topic-specific committees and advisory boards. Additionally, graduate students served on the Committee on Graduate Education and its resulting committees and continue to serve on various ad hoc committees devoted to improving graduate education and graduate student life.

Assessing Union Representation

You can find information in support of unionization at the Graduate Students United website.

Collective bargaining only requires that the union and the University agree on a contract that addresses “wages, hours, benefits, and other terms of employment.” Many aspects of the student experience are outside the realm of collective bargaining and would unlikely be addressed by a union contract.

Only if the union shares them. Federal labor law requires employers and unions to bargain collectively with respect to “wages, hours, and other terms of employment,” which are broad concepts, after the union has won the representation election and is certified as the exclusive bargaining representative. The union’s agenda, which is the starting point for the negotiation from the union side, is typically determined by union leadership in consultation with its members.

Unlike political elections, which happen regularly to determine voters’ representatives, unions do not face periodic re-election, and students will not have the opportunity to vote regularly on whether to keep a union. Once a union is certified by the National Labor Relations Board as the exclusive representative of a bargaining unit, it remains so indefinitely and will represent all future students in the bargaining unit.

Yes. There is a one-year waiting period after an election until another election can be held. If a majority of voters vote against union representation, the same union or a different union could seek an election after one year.

How Collective Bargaining Works

Federal labor law requires employers and unions to bargain collectively with respect to “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment”—concepts that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and federal courts have interpreted broadly. The NLRB and the federal courts have little to no experience analyzing what are “terms and conditions of employment” for graduate students whose primary relationship with the University is as students, and for whom teaching and research are academic components of their degree programs.

Exceptions are not permitted unless they were provided for in the labor contract or the union otherwise agrees to them. Collective bargaining agreements focus on workers as a collective, not as individuals.

Yes. Collective bargaining is, as it sounds, collectivist in nature. This means that the union speaks and acts for all graduate students in the bargaining unit as a whole, and the provisions in the labor contract it negotiates apply to all unit members, unless exceptions and differences are provided for in the contract.

Other Impacts of Graduate Student Unionization

A union would be the exclusive voice to the University for all students it represents on issues related to wages, benefits, hours, and other working terms and conditions. Individual graduate students could be limited in how they discuss these issues outside of union negotiations.

Because working hours are a “mandatory subject of bargaining” (i.e., an item over which the employer and a union must negotiate if the union is elected and certified), caps on the number of hours graduate students in the sciences could work each week could be a topic raised by either side and would require mandatory bargaining. The University would bargain in good faith over this issue if it were raised. Some existing collective bargaining agreements at other universities that cover research assistants in the sciences include maximum hour limitations for work performed by research assistants in their capacity as workers and some do not.

A union would likely propose having a contractual grievance process, but there is no guarantee that it would be different than or an improvement over procedures currently being implemented based on recommendation of the recent graduate student grievance committee. With or without a union, we need to continue to work to foster an open and transparent environment in which all students feel comfortable raising concerns with their faculty mentors and using the grievance process when it is needed. It is not only having a grievance process that matters—it is creating and sustaining a culture where grievances can be openly aired and resolved in a manner that is consistent with our academic values and principles.