University Should Bargain with Graduate Student Union

Photo courtesy of Natalie Battaglia | Loyola University ChicagoA graduate student adjusts his graduation cap, reading “I [love] LUC,” after Loyola University Chicago’s Graduate School and Institute of Pastoral Studies commencement ceremony held at the Lakeshore Campus Gentile Arena, May 10, 2016.

Earlier this year, Loyola’s graduate assistants voted 71-49 to unionize, The Phoenix reported. Last month the university announced it wouldn’t recognize the union. This decision is a failure to support Loyola students.

In a statement rejecting a collective bargaining agreement, Margaret Callahan, the provost of Loyola’s health sciences division, stated that graduate students were “fundamentally students,” and they didn’t have the legal right to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act. I am by no means qualified to contest the legalese in question, but the argument that graduate students, who receive stipends for their work researching and teaching, don’t qualify as employees seems untenable.

Yes, research and teaching are elements of graduate education, but these activities aren’t solely for the edification of the graduate students. Graduate students engaged in teaching and research are providing services for the university, not simply taking opportunities provided by the university for their own self-betterment. There’s something suspect and paternalistic about treating graduate students’ labor as a privilege of a similar nature to undergraduate coursework. The academic work that graduate students perform is work, beyond being just another aspect of their education.

The contract for graduate assistants stipulates that outside employment “may not be held during the award period.” It’s inconsistent and exploitative to deny these employees collective bargaining rights while simultaneously denying them the opportunity to seek outside sources of income.

Regardless of whether or not graduate assistants technically qualify as employees, the fact that they are Loyola students means the university should work to promote their well-being. Loyola should recognize that a status quo in which a student must sell her car to stay afloat — as Liza DiStefano, a Loyola graduate assistant and outspoken proponent of the union, did — is deeply unjust. Loyola needs to take care of its graduate assistants, whose present livelihoods and future opportunities depend on their education and employment through Loyola. This means ensuring them a living wage and respecting their wish to bargain with Loyola through a union.

The university touted “direct graduate assistant feedback” involved in recent changes to graduate assistant compensation, which is an important step in the right direction, but doesn’t go far enough. The students want a union through which to hold these sorts of discussions; the university should respect that desire. Administrators have expressed fear that union involvement would needlessly complicate relations, but the real effect would be one of equalization. With the weight of a union behind them, graduate assistants would be able to negotiate with the university on a more equitable basis.

An administration statement also dismissed the union on the grounds that it was approved by such a slim margin. Distefano is confident that a union will benefit all graduate students, even those who opposed unionization or were uninterested in collective bargaining.

“[Graduate students who didn’t vote for the union] have already, and will continue, to benefit from the work of those who are fighting for improvements for all of us,” DiStefano said in an email interview. “[A recently instituted stipend increase] was the direct result of pressure from the graduate student union, and it benefited not just the people who actively fought for it, but everyone in our unit.”

The university has also expressed concerns that a union would misunderstand Jesuit values.

“Catholic Social Teaching requires that the University and its constituent members be guided toward the common good and not just the members’ own economic interests,” reads a statement on loyolaforyou.org, a website set up to provide a forum for student communication with the administration.

This language is disingenuous, painting graduate assistants’ desire for livable compensation and a say in their jobs as somehow greedy — when, in fact, any “common good” relies on just working conditions for all. What is more essential to social justice than the rights of a worker?

In his Prayer for Generosity, St. Ignatius asked God to teach him “to labor and not to ask for any reward,” and “to give and not to count the cost.” Our graduate assistants aren’t asking for undue reward, only for sufficient compensation to feasibly sustain their work. Though I appreciate practical financial concerns the university may have, this issue calls for generosity.

The federal tax plan passed Nov.16 by the House of Representatives would raise taxes on graduate students by as much as 400 percent by treating tuition waivers and stipends as taxable income and eliminating tax incentives for higher education. This change in tax policy would have massive repercussions for graduate assistants.

“I only make $18,000 [before taxes]a year from Loyola. My tuition waiver each semester is a little over $9,000,” DiStefano said. “That means that according to the new tax plan, I would be paying taxes on literally double what I actually take home, being taxed on $36,000 of income.”

If this tax plan becomes law, DiStefano is considering leaving Chicago altogether, as she would no longer be able to afford its cost of living. The only way she could feasibly remain in Loyola’s graduate program would be for the university to raise stipends significantly, but she doesn’t expect the university to do this “willingly or easily,” which is why she is placing her hopes in the union.

“The collective bargaining power of a large body of students, sharing the same problems, the same goals, and fighting for a livable, sustainable solution, is more important now than it ever has been,” she said.

In defending its undocumented students earlier this semester, Loyola made clear its commitment to supporting students’ well-being. The stakes may be somewhat lower in this case, but the threat is no less real.

“We plan to continue to hold the university accountable to its promises and its Jesuit values, and we will continue to strive to represent the interests of everyone that falls under the graduate student union and fight for the bettered work conditions of everyone,” DiStefano said. I wish the union luck, and I urge the university to seriously consider its graduate students’ needs.

Graduate students, as instructors and teaching assistants, have contributed a great deal to my Loyola experience, and I consider it only just that my tuition dollars go to ensuring they are compensated sufficiently. As of right now, Loyola’s graduate students are vulnerable and underserved; the university has a duty to do right by them, and recognizing this union is a key part of fulfilling that duty. Loyola should confront its values and priorities honestly and reconsider its denial of recognition for the union.

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