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The Labor Movement’s Newest Warriors: Grad Students

They teach classes. They grade papers. They get paid. And yet, private universities insist they're not workers.

Adrian Mandeville

Hannah Kim and Natalia Piland are not your typical labor organizers. Kim, 23, has a bleached mullet, and when we met at a cafe near campus last Friday, she was wearing baggy track pants and chunky dad shoes. Piland, 29, was wearing all black, other than an iridescent fanny pack. Both of them are graduate students at the University of Chicago.

It’s the final week of classes, but the two women have not been consumed with schoolwork. Instead, they’ve been busy organizing their peers to fight for better work conditions: On Monday, many UChicago graduate students participated in a three-day walkout, refusing to teach or grade papers.

“What is a way for graduates to actually have power and to actually be able to push what we want our work place to look like?” Piland said. “The union is the only way that seems feasible.”

These women, both members of Graduate Students United at UChicago, are among the new faces of unionization in America. They’re organizing what were once stable, middle class professions, which have seen wages and benefits erode precisely as positions opened up to women and minority candidates.

The University of Chicago is the largest employer on the south side of the city. Graduate students are included in that statistic, but the university disputes their status as workers, which remains ambiguous in federal law. Graduate students at public universities have long been considered workers, and many are unionized, including those in the CUNY and University of California systems. Graduate students at private universities are also considered workers, thanks to a 2016 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board. But the board, which now tilts Republican under President Trump, is revisiting the ruling and expected to reverse it.

Thus, instead of seeking official recognition at the federal level, Graduate Students United are seeking voluntary recognition from UChicago’s administration, which would not be subject to NLRB approval. The administration has shown no sign of budging from its position, so on May 20, the graduate students voted 1,134 to 112 in favor of an “industrial action”—effectively a strike, though they can’t call it that because they’re not officially unionized.

A picket line at UChicago’s Hull Gate this week
Adrian Mandeville

This has been a long time coming. Writing a dissertation at a prestigious university no longer guarantees a stable academic job, even after many years of higher education. The old promise of a middle-class job for PhD candidates is disappearing. Particularly since the 2008 recession, the generation of tenure-track jobs has slowed to a trickle. There are more classes held than ever before, especially at UChicago, which expanded its undergraduate population steadily over the past few decades. But these classes are being taught by contingent workers: graduate students and non-tenure-track faculty with less job security, lower wages, and fewer benefits. These are the positions that await the majority of freshly minted PhDs.

Faced with this increasingly precarious future, graduate students at prestigious private universities—including Columbia, Harvard, and Yale—are organizing to improve their conditions. After all, many graduate students work to support themselves through school, as teaching and research assistants. Wages are low and payments frequently late. Students sometimes accumulate mountains of debt while conducting their research. Given their terrible job prospects, they know they will find it difficult to pay off these debts after graduation.

The administration is finally promising to improve these conditions, but only now that unionization is a credible threat. “When I came here I was involved in a couple of diversity and inclusion initiatives,” Piland said. “Our groups got invited to sit at the table with the dean of students, some faculty, and administrators to talk about what the university could do to support minority students. We would say the same things every time and they would dismiss it.”

In the last two years, unionization efforts have intensified. In October of 2017, the graduate students voted to unionize by more than a 2-to-1 margin. A year later, many of them held a boisterous, drum-banging walk-out to remind the administration of the prior year’s vote. It was rumored to be the largest campus protest since the Vietnam walkouts of the 1970s. (That’s where Piland first met Kim: “I was like who is that cool drummer girl?”) Another walkout was held on May 1, and now all this week.

The campus is usually abuzz all day and night during the final week of classes. Not this year. The campus quadrangle is largely quiet, other than the chants coming from the picket lines in front of building entrances and the roving marching band of protesters crisscrossing the campus. Many professors, who have their own reasons to be upset, are holding their final classes off campus in solidarity with the graduate students. Speaking at a GSU rally on Tuesday, longtime English professor Elaine Hadley decried the increasing “centralization of academic governance, with the administrative branch growing and consuming a larger slice of the income pie,” as well as “the exploitation of graduate-student and non-tenure-track labor” and “the anti-union ideology that seems to hover like a cloud over the administration building.” Around two hundred and fifty additional faculty members signed a letter of promise not to retaliate against any person taking part in the upcoming industrial action.

Five hundred undergraduates signed a solidarity petition and many classes were cancelled or moved off campus. In my three days at the picket line, I only saw a handful of students cross it to attend the classes that are still being held, as the administration faces backlash for its handling of the protests. This past weekend, John W. Boyer, the dean of the college at UChicago, sent a letter to all undergraduates, enlisting them in efforts to track graduate students’ refusal to work. It asked students to notify their college adviser if they’re “blocked from entering buildings or classrooms,” if “emails to instructors do not receive a response,” or if their “instructor is not available to receive completed work” or does not appear within the first 15 minutes of class.

The three-day strike ended on Wednesday. In the morning, Provost Daniel Diermeier sent out the first campus-wide email since the strike began to reaffirm the university’s position on graduate student unionization. He boasts of a 23 percent increase in their stipends over eight years. He doesn’t mention that this increase was won as a direct result of GSU’s labor organizing, which began more than ten years ago.

There are signs that the “industrial action” will not convince the administration to recognize the graduate students’ union. Alyssa Battistoni, who recently chronicled her participation in failed unionization efforts at Yale, nevertheless believes that the efforts of her UChicago peers will not be in vain. “When you organize, you win,” she told me, because “even if you don’t get everything you ask for, you do win real improvements.” Graduate students at both Yale and UChicago won raises and better health care after they organized.

There’s a long fight ahead, even for graduate students who do win recognition from their university. Christopher Mejia, an organizer with the “7K or Strike” campaign at the City University of New York, explains that rising prices for housing, healthcare, and child care have lowered the purchasing power of teaching assistants’ wages, even among unionized graduate-student workers. In other words, graduate students face the same increasing burdens that low-wage workers across America do. “We need to view the university as a microcosm of broader society,” he said.

They may be getting advanced degrees, but these graduate students are not so different from public school teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma, or fast-food workers in New York and L.A. The more that these workers across society recognize their shared struggle, the more power they’ll wield.