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Graduate Student Corner- Spring 2018

Section Editors: Aneesa Baboolal, Sarah Bannister, Alison Cox
Guest Editor: Anne Kirkner


Labor unions are experiencing a small but steady resurgence of support, particularly among those in the under 40 set (see: "Millennials are Keeping Unions Alive" by Michelle Chen at The Nation). Labor unions in higher education are especially important, as more and more academic and teaching labor is performed by graduate assistants who are working toward a Master’s or PhD. The University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC) Graduate Employee Organization, Local 6297, is part of a strong network of graduate employee labor unions across the country. We recently built to be one of the top two highest participation unions in the country, increasing our membership by 43% in just 2 years. What is the value in being an active member in your union? Why is it important to have a high participation union? I hope to provide some answers to these questions (though for a longer and more elegant answer to the second question, I recommend reading Jane McAlevey’s book No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age).

I want to share how being an active member in my union has helped me as a graduate student. But beyond improving my own personal experiences, being part of a grad union can enrich the entire campus community (especially when faculty, adjunct, and grad unions are in solidarity). And beyond the campus community, unions nationally are helping hold the line against deep cuts to education and threats to a fundamental democratic process known as collective bargaining.

Union Structure

My union represents 1500 teaching and graduate assistants at UIC. Due to an Illinois state law, research assistants are barred from being part of the bargaining unit. However, many research assistants and those on fellowships participate in union organizing as solidarity members. A full one-third of our members are international students.

People in the bargaining unit are automatically covered by the contract, whether they have signed a membership card or not. Signing the membership card gives people the ability to vote in union elections. Regardless of whether people sign the card, fair share dues are collected from each paycheck. These dues account for about 2.5% of a worker’s overall yearly wages. With the very first contract in 2006, our union negotiated a raise of about 3%*. Dues have stayed pretty consistently low, while the union has been able to win a total of 39% wage increases since 2006. Therefore, the union essentially offset the cost of dues in its very first contract for every future contract. Dues are important because they help pay for office space, two very helpful staff organizers, professional development and national organizing efforts. They also help us secure legal help when we need it.

We have an elected steering committee made up of two co-presidents, organizing chair, chief steward, communications chair, grievance, secretary, treasurer, outreach, and bargaining chair. People tend to serve in these roles for 1-2 years. A steward’s council made up of departmental representatives meets every other week to plan our organizing activities and any actions that might need to take place.

What We Do

Last year was the final year of our contract (the collective bargaining agreement that covers all graduate employees) and we were not yet bargaining a new one. When unions bargain new contracts, it involves a flurry of activity and fosters a lot of connection between members. In the years between contracts, many unions try to have a strong steward’s council that can communicate with the wider membership about their rights under the contract. Stewards can then be alerted to violations of the contract and respond to the violations through organizing members to collectively speak out against the violation or filing a formal grievance. Often, it is helpful to engage both processes.

Over the past two years we have successfully organized around grievances to get members reinstated when they were improperly fired, when they were experiencing retaliation from supervisors, and other situations that did not always constitute a formal grievance but could often be resolved with a well-placed email, meeting, or show of support from fellow members. I have witnessed how graduate employees are vulnerable to mistreatment not just due to their status as students but also statuses related to gender identity, race or ethnicity, international student status, and class.

Structural oppression emerges in the workplace but this means it can be exposed and fought in the workplace, too. Unions are pretty much made for this purpose- and they are a great place to exercise solidarity with one another. I have seen this happen with my union and on my campus when over 50 members packed a grievance meeting in support of a member facing discrimination for her anti-racist organizing.

We also exercise collective efficacy in the dedicated group of departmental stewards, who listen to their colleagues when they have issues and help connect them to our staff and grievance chair. Together, we figure out a path forward. Working on the steward’s council reminds me that unions are one of the last truly democratic spaces in society.

Threats to Grad Unions

While my union has worked hard to build towards a high participation model, we are organizing under the threat of the upcoming Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME which stands to eliminate fair share dues. Many labor scholars and activists believe the Court will decide against unions by allowing “free riders”- workers who retain the benefits of a collective bargaining agreement without paying for it. This will have a devastating effect on unions in non “right to work” states. But unions are not going down without a fight. Building toward high participation is one strategy to protect our union, ensuring that we talk to every member about the importance of our collective power, teaching them our history and all the gains that we have won together.

Grad unions work to lift the wages of all grad employees. At my institution, I would probably still be paid in convenience store credit if not for the dedication and persistence of the graduate workers who came before me. This is perhaps the most important reason of all to become active in your union: a strong contract will live on and help protect future graduate workers.

*Prior to unionizing it was not uncommon for graduate assistants to be paid in credit at the campus convenience store- this credit was called Dragon Dollars.