Meet Me at the Student Union 

Jennifer Rexroat thought she was getting a great deal when she signed on as a graduate student in political science and women's studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago: she'd get to study what she loved in exchange for teaching two classes a year. But three and a half years later she finds herself "upwards of $30,000" in debt--not because she's splurging, but because UIC pays her only about $7,000 a year. So she's helping to organize a union at the school.

Nascent unions at UIC and the University of Chicago are far from being ready to hold representation elections. But they are canvassing students, holding conferences, exposing wage and hiring practices long kept under wraps, and sponsoring petition drives. About 200 of UIC's 2,100 graduate students who work as clericals and as teaching and research assistants have joined the Graduate Employees' Organization since the union started work on the Chicago campus in January of this year (GEO is affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers, which supplies a full-time organizer and some funds). GEO's steering committee hopes to have 1,000 members by May, but many graduate students haven't even heard of GEO yet. "Our main issue is name recognition," says Daniel Zellman, a third-year doctoral student and teaching assistant in English and a member of the steering committee.

Graduate students do a lot of work for UIC; about 800 are assigned a class section each semester. The English department, for example, employs 80 to 90 teaching assistants each year for freshman composition classes. "Some departments would be crippled without TAs," says Rexroat. Wages vary widely from department to department--they're generally higher in the sciences--but the base minimum salary is about $8,500 for a 20-hour workweek and a nine-month school year. Health insurance isn't included, though the waived tuitions are worth $2,400 to $2,900. "I know very few people who aren't in debt or holding down second jobs," says Zellman.

In the long run GEO wants to represent grad student employees on all the University of Illinois campuses. The four-year-old union won a representation election on the Urbana-Champaign campus in 1995, which established it as the official representative body for grad student employees. But the university decided to fight the election before the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board, arguing that grad students were not employees and therefore were not protected by labor laws. The Supreme Court declared in 1996 that grad students at private universities were employees, and grad students at state schools are protected under the Wagner Act in at least ten states, though not Illinois. A hearing officer with the IELRB ruled that grad students who worked on the Urbana campus were not employees. GEO is currently appealing the decision to the full IELRB, and a new ruling is expected in January. The legal status of grad student employees is crucial to the success of the union, since international unions such as the American Federation of Teachers aren't likely to pour money into campaigns to organize workers who aren't protected under the Wagner Act.

At the University of Chicago grad students teach much less on average than their counterparts at public universities, thanks to U. of C.'s tradition of having full-time faculty teach undergraduates. But inspired by the success of a union at the University of Iowa and angry about low wages for graduate employees in the humanities, U. of C. grad students founded a union last January.

Aegis--the name refers to Athena's shield--claims about 90 members. That's a small portion of the university's graduate employee population, but not bad for less than a year of organizing work. Working with other campus groups, the union has already defeated the administration's plan to charge all graduate students for logging on to their E-mail from off campus, and it has organized a petition drive in response to a congressional proposal last summer to start taxing grad student tuition waivers (most students receive a full waiver, which amounts to $21,000 a year). And, according to organizers, after Aegis publicized the history department's low wages, teaching assistants there got a raise, from $750 a quarter to $1,300--still remarkably low compared with the pay at other elite private universities. (In 1995 Yale grad students who were making around $10,000 a year went on strike in protest.)

One problem union organizers at U. of C. face is a strong sentiment among grad students and faculty that teaching is an honor, not a job. "I've had experiences asking about remuneration, and people look at me like I've told a dirty joke," says Moses Hohman, a third-year doctoral student in physics and an Aegis steering committee member. But organizers say that the desire to keep scholarly work free of the taint of money makes unionization even more important. "Not only is the university treating its workers shabbily--it's obligating professors to act as middle managers," says Michael Werner, a doctoral student in history who's also an Aegis steering committee member. "This puts both students and professors in a very difficult situation."

U. of C. is now expanding, and many people on campus are angry that the administration seems to be making decisions based more on the bottom line than on the ideals and mission of the institution--which has made faculty and students sympathetic to the union. The Chicago Maroon even published an editorial demanding that the administration recognize Aegis, though the union hadn't asked for recognition. Supporters see the union as a way to prevent financial interests from encroaching on the intellectual sphere. Werner agrees. "It's about the dignity of scholarly work, and not just dollars and cents." --Kim Phillips-Fein

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jennifer Rexroat photo by Randy Tunnell.

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