HYDE PARK — University of Chicago graduate students this week voted overwhelmingly to unionize.
Graduate students voted 1,103 to 479 in favor of forming a union that would be represented locally by the American Federation of Teachers, Illinois Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors.
Approximately 70 percent of eligible students turned out for the vote over several days this week and even with 149 ballots challenged, easily found majority support for the union.
“Our overwhelming victory is a testament to our long-held belief: Graduate workers perform unquestionably valuable work and are the backbone of the University of Chicago,” said third-year student Claudio Gonzales in a statement from the AFT announcing the successful vote.
He said this week shows the power of the democratic process, but the long and arduous task of negotiating improved working conditions must still take place.
“We can even challenge the idea of who, by socio-economic circumstance, is able to attend graduate school in the first place,” Gonzales said. “Today, we showed that grads at U. of C. are prepared to take responsibility in the world that our labor helps to shape.”
The bargaining unit could be as large as 2,500 people, including teaching assistants, instructors, lecturers and others in the School of Social Services Administration, the Divinity School, the Division of Humanities, the Division of Social Sciences, the Division of Biological Sciences and the Division of Physical Sciences.
Last year, the National Labor Relations Board decided that graduate students could be classified as employees and thus unionize in a case involving Columbia University. The University of Chicago and other universities have sought to have the decision overturned.
“We continue to have concerns about the impact of a graduate student union on the university’s mission of creating and imparting knowledge through direct mentorship, teaching and individually guided research and writing,” said Marielle Sainvilus, a spokeswoman for the university.
She said the university will continue to pursue that case and will continue to support its graduate students.
“Graduate students from across the university have worked directly with faculty and staff to improve graduate education and graduate student life,” Sainvilus said. “We recognize that there remains room for improvement, and the University is committed to continuous efforts to enhance support for graduate students.”
The unionization efforts by graduate students at U. of C. has taken nearly a decade now, spurred initially by the stipends for teaching assistants falling behind peer institutions and a push for improved health care and better work and study policies.
The university declined to say whether it would recognize the union or challenge the election. Refusing to recognize the union could spark more challenges before the National Labor Relations Board or ultimately, the courts