Liza DiStefano stood in front of a long, crowded table at a bar in Rogers Park Monday evening. She tapped her water glass with a butter knife and welcomed the group, members of the Loyola University Chicago graduate workers union.
It was a chance to update members about the latest in their fight to get the university to recognize the union and negotiate a contract.
“We’ve been constantly gaining support,” DiStefano said as she rattled off a list of protests they’ve organized this year and efforts they’ve made to engage administrators. “This is one of our most visible semesters thus far.”
“So what are we going to do with all that now?” she asked the group.
That’s the big question for fledgling graduate student unions at private universities in the Chicago area and around the country. While public universities have long had the right to unionize and have staged walkouts — including recent strikes at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Urbana-Champaign — graduate student unions at private universities are relatively new. Across Chicago, they are struggling to get their universities to recognize their union, let alone negotiate a contract.
And while none of the union organizers at local private schools say they have plans to strike, they say they are running out of ways to pressure administrators to come to the bargaining table.
“We want a seat at the table at how these decisions are made,” said Ruby Oram, a Ph.D. student at Loyola University Chicago. “We don’t want just bones thrown at us, random benevolent gifts when the administration feels pressure to give us something. We want, in writing, grad students and administrators to come together and decide on a fair contract.”
The Columbia decision
A wave of students at private universities across the country voted to unionize starting in 2016, when the National Labor Relations Board ruled graduate student workers at Columbia University are employees. Before then, it wasn’t an option at private schools.
Loyola’s graduate students voted to unionize in February 2017 followed by the University of Chicago graduate students. Northwestern University graduate students also formed a union.
At many universities, graduate students do everything from teaching classes and grading papers for professors to holding administrative positions in academic departments and assisting in research.
In exchange, universities cover all or part of tuition and provide a yearly stipend. At Loyola, the base stipend is around $18,000 for nine months. At Northwestern, it’s $32,000 for the full year. Some universities include health insurance.
But students say the stipends often don’t cover living expenses after taxes. It forces students to take out loans to make ends meet, they say, despite working for schools that have multimillion and multibillion dollar endowments.
Students say racking up debt to pay rent is unjust and say if they had a union, they could advocate for better pay and working conditions.
As students voted to unionize, schools appealed the NLRB’s decision. In statements sent to WBEZ, both Loyola University Chicago and Northwestern maintain graduate students are just that, students and not employees.
“The classification of these students as employees would significantly change the relationship between these students, their faculty mentors and the University,” a Northwestern spokeswoman said in a statement. “Northwestern has been, and remains committed to cultivating its relationship with its Ph.D.-seeking graduate students, keeping the lines of communication open, and working collaboratively on issues important to them.”
At Loyola, a spokeswoman said the university has increased stipends and added other new benefits for students in good faith over the past few years, including dental coverage and more money for graduate students to travel to conferences. But students argue none of those changes would’ve been made without their efforts as an organization and nothing guarantees those added benefits will remain.
The University of Chicago did not respond to a request for comment. But when it appealed the NLRB’s decision to recognize the graduate workers union there, they also argued students are not workers.
“They had professors testify to things like having someone grading for them isn't helping them in any way,” said Emily Smith, secretary of the University of Chicago graduate workers union. “[They said] the sorts of things we do, like leading discussion sections, are purely to train us and if undergraduates in our classes happen to learn something then that’s a byproduct of our training.”
‘Hiding behind Trump’
As schools appealed to the NLRB, newly elected President Donald Trump appointed a new group of members to the board who were less friendly to organized labor.
Fearing the new board would overturn the Columbia ruling, graduate student unions around the country, including the union at the University of Chicago, withdrew their requests for recognition.
Instead, graduate student workers at UChicago, Loyola and Northwestern are asking schools for voluntary recognition. Some private schools nationally have done that, including New York University and Georgetown. But none of the local private universities have agreed, and the new NLRB board is unlikely to compel them.
“We know the university is hiding behind Trump and hiding behind Trump's NLRB,” Northwestern graduate student Kitty Yang charged.
Few options left
Bob Bruno studies labor relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He said the recent union actions at public and private universities are connected. There are fewer job openings for students with advanced degrees that pay well.
“We’re talking at a time when students are incurring larger debt levels with fewer promises of employment in their field,” Bruno said, which creates as lot of anxiety.
“There’s going to be a recognition that ‘Who is championing your cause?’” Bruno said. “Well, actually, about the only champion you have is your teachers union or graduate student union. You’ve got to form collectively because that’s the only way you have any kind of a voice.”
Many of the unions at local private universities closely followed the three-week strike at the University of Illinois at Chicago that ended last week to see what they were able to negotiate in their new contract. They’re also continuing to pressure their universities to come to the table.
On Thursday, the graduate union at Northwestern plans to present petitions to the administration as they campaign for more funding for Ph.D. students.
At Loyola, DiStefano says graduate students are running out of ways to pressure the university to bargain.
“We've given the university countless opportunities to come to bargaining table with us,” DiStefano said. “All these actions, all these petitions. We’ve been contacting the board of trustees, the deans, President [Jo Ann] Rooney herself. It’s kind of getting to what else can we do?”
She says unions can always strike. And it may come to that.