April 2022 Circuit

Graduate Labor Organizing and Why it Matters

Date: April 15th, 2022, from 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm CDT

Location: Zoom (online platform)

Speakers: Nathan Ellstrand, PhD (Loyola), Julie Ming Liang (Northwestern), Erin O’Callaghan (UIC)

Julie Ming Liang, representing the Graduate Student Union at Northwestern University, kicked off the circuit by first explaining the difference between advocacy and unionization. An advocacy group can be defined as a core group of students that represent the student population as a whole like the Graduate Student Association. Julie identified advocacy groups as those that tend to have a faster route from student desires to administration, however, these groups tend to be less powerful due to limited voice of the askers. These groups typically have single-issue campaigns such as receiving N95 masks for students during the pandemic. Ultimately, the fate of their concerns is decided by the university’s administration. Unionization is a term used to describe a legally protected voice consisting of as many students as possible. Although the process to see change is slower, the voice of a union can be more powerful than that of an advocacy group. Unions are not limited to one issue but can fight for multiple causes in unison. Where advocacy groups must rely on the university for solutions, unions rely on the students’ decisions.

Conversation then moves into defining a graduate student worker, emphasizing that graduate students are not just students, but “workers” for the university, whether that is in terms of teaching or laboratory labor. The purpose of a graduate student union is to fight for workplace conditions such as wages or stipend raises, benefits like insurance and time off, workplace protections like lab safety and international student rights, and recognition for unpaid labor like teaching and recruitment. However, these unions do not do you justice if they are not well represented – you must get involved to get what you want and represent your peers!

Structured discussion began with this question: What is the process of organizing a union? Erin O’Callaghan from University of Illinois Chicago gave some history, stating that UIC is a public institution and has the oldest graduate union in Illinois which started in the 1980s. However, it should be acknowledged that Illinois is a more labor-friendly state than others and that public institutions do not face as many legal issues when it comes to establishing a union. O’Callaghan mentions that she had just came off a bargaining session, which is an exhausting process where unions negotiate contracts with the institution and can last over 12 hours.

Nathan Ellstrand represented the Graduate Workers’ Union at Loyola, the first private university to vote for a union in the Midwest. Although Loyola was one of the firsts, union members still struggle with the actions of their institution. Loyola does not support labor rights, which is contradictory to their position as a supporter of social justice movements, claiming students are religious workers making them legally exempt from the right to form a union. Julie Liang explains that the Graduate Student Union at Northwestern was established following the Columbia ruling, an important court case which set the precedent for private university graduate student unions (which former president Donald Trump attempted to reverse during his time in office).

Panelists were asked to explain what contracts are and how strikes work with graduate unions. A labor contract is a legal agreement between the union and the university, which holds the university accountable for meeting the needs of the union. These needs include rights, like paid time off and parental leave, and protection against harassment in the workplace. A strike is essentially withholding labor from the employer and can last for as short as one day to as long as a few months. Strikes push the employer to meet your bargaining terms, whether that means you work a reduced hours or refuse to turn in grades for a class you teach.

Speakers narrow down the conversation to explain how unionization can help STEM students specifically. STEM specific issues addressed by unions can be workplace and lab safety, relationship boundaries with advisors and mentors, and changes to funding structures.

In summary, unions offer a great amount of support to graduate students. Statistics show that in unionized industries, employees have a better quality of life. We are conditioned to be grateful to the universities we work for because of the opportunities they may offer us, but we must recognize that those opportunities are our given rights.

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Written by:

Katy Trotter
Northwestern University, Chicago, IL