Above photo: Workers at the Northwestern University celebrate at a union rally. United Electric.
The higher ed organizing wave is finally hitting Chicago as Northwestern and UChicago grads look to unionize.
Chicago’s thousands of graduate workers — increasingly responsible for teaching and research work once performed by faculty — have long been overworked, underpaid, and non-union. This month, that might finally be starting to change.
On January 12, nearly 3,000 graduate workers at Northwestern University announced a landslide victory in their union election, winning 93.5% of the vote. This Tuesday, some 3,000 graduate workers at the nearby University of Chicago (UChicago) will also cast ballots, and while UChicago’s election results won’t be tallied until March due to mail-in voting, a majority of workers pledged to vote “yes.” The two universities are the largest employers of graduate workers in Chicago, and union victories at both would reflect a dramatic increase in the area’s academic union density.
Organizers with Northwestern University Graduate Workers (NUGW) and UChicago’s Graduate Student United (GSU) are hopeful that their new unions will empower academic workers across the city, in part by making other union campaigns more feasible. “If you have two strong grad worker unions in your city,” says Valay Agarawal, a chemistry Ph.D. student and union organizer at UChicago, “then it’s rather easy to organize other universities.” Agarawal predicts “a massive increase” in Chicago-area graduate worker organizing in the near future. Non-union graduate workplaces like DePaul University and Loyola University Chicago (where graduate workers are still struggling for union recognition) are among those that could get an organizing boost from wins at NUGW and GSU.
The two unions also hope to set a new floor for graduate working conditions in the city. At both universities, the base stipend paid to graduate workers — $33,000 a year at UChicago and $35,196 at Northwestern — is far below Chicago’s living wage of $40,123. “I know graduate workers who are on food stamps,” says Brianna Suslovic, a social work Ph.D. student at UChicago. “It’s been years since most of us have gone to the dentist because our dental plans are so limited.” Suslovic says inflation has made the cost of living in Hyde Park untenable for many of her colleagues, and in order to survive, most graduate workers are working side-jobs on top of their teaching requirements and regular coursework. “Graduate students should not have to work full-time, in addition to being full-time employees of the university,” she adds.
In addition to improving graduate workers’ meager pay, GSU demands include comprehensive health insurance, protections against racial discrimination and sexual harassment, financial and legal support for international students, and transparency in the university budget. NUGW’s similar platform reflects the many shared conditions of graduate work within the city. If NUGW and GSU were to win these demands and raise workplace standards, organizers believe it will have a tangible impact on academic workers across Chicago. “If we get a really great contract,” says Neomi Rao, a political science Ph.D. candidate at UChicago and one of the co-presidents of GSU, “then post-doctoral workers can also benefit from that, and other campus unions can bargain for more.”
Organizers at Northwestern and UChicago are actively collaborating to achieve these goals. Following years of organizing with the American Federation of Teachers, last summer workers at both campuses chose to affiliate with the social-justice oriented union United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), after shared discussion. “The bandwidth of communication is very large,” says Agarawal, “All sorts of resources are shared between us and Northwestern.” According to organizers, the two committees host joint trainings, collaborate on social events, and attend each other’s rallies and meetings. They also compare platforms, trade information, and share advice about strategies that work.
This level of tactical communication extends beyond Chicago. Suslovic says UChicago organizers have an“older-sibling relationship” with their counterparts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who are also UE affiliates. Having won their union election in April 2022, MIT graduate workers are able to offer insights about successful organizing strategies, what to expect from the National Labor Relations Board election process, and what to anticipate from the administration in terms of anti-union messaging. After learning of MIT workers doing lab and classroom “walkthroughs” to reach new workers, organizers say, both UChicago and Northwestern successfully adopted the strategy.
“It’s been a really productive exchange,” says Rao. “We’re really excited to be on this parallel pathway with them and be able to pressure our respective administrations simultaneously. It’s going to be really powerful.”
NUGW and GSU hope to be able to negotiate and renegotiate their contracts on the same timeline. “That way,” says Qining Wang, a chemistry Ph.D. candidate and union organizer at Northwestern, “We can campaign together and collectively ask for bigger things.” Shared timelines could allow NUGW and GSU to coordinate contract demands and, if necessary, strike together, much like three unions in the University of California system were able to do in late 2022.
“One of the really exciting things about being at such a similar stage in our campaigns — and hopefully both winning — is that we have a lot to cross pollinate when it comes to ideas about bargaining,” says Suslovic. This includes “ideas about the kinds of benefits that exist beyond a single campus.”
One of these ideas is to hold universities accountable to the city of Chicago. In 2021, the endowments of both universities grew by 37%, giving UChicago its highest return on investments since 2000 and Northwestern a record-shattering endowment growth of nearly $3.8 billion. Despite these massive endowment gains, neither university pays any local property taxes even as, according to critics, each contributes to Chicago’s rapid gentrification. GSU organizers are thinking about how a contract could stipulate that certain contributions to the Hyde Park community be required from UChicago. At NUGW, another possibility is to require financial transparency from the university, especially around huge new investments such as stadiums. For Lozier, a union contract brings graduate workers “much closer to actually being able to demand accountability and justification for the kinds of expenditures we see.”
Abolishing campus police may be another shared demand that NUGW and GSU advance. Both unions have previously put out statements in solidarity with abolitionist groups on their campuses, and according to music theory Ph.D. candidate and NUGW co-chair Sara Bowden, “[Police] abolition remains important to our cause and who we are as an anti-racist, feminist labor movement.” Bowden emphasized, however, that the issues at the bargaining table will be decided democratically by graduate workers through a campus survey.
Even before casting his ballot, GSU member Konstantinos Ameranis believes the campaign has already borne fruit. At the start of UChicago’s winter quarter, a stipend raise of $4,000 was announced for the following academic year — which, according to Ameranis, is the largest raise to date. Ameranis attributes this both to the rising cost of city living and to GSU’s organizing.
GSU organizers are excited about what their potential victory will mean for the city. “We can support organizing other universities,” Agarwal says. “We can become a powerhouse of organizing.”