As a PhD student worker, an instructor of record, and co-chair of the Loyola Graduate Workers’ Union, I find it imperative to bring to light the dismissive treatment that my fellow graduate workers and I have received while in graduate school. I do not claim to speak for all graduate workers, but the administration needs only to remember last semester’s massive sit-in and subsequent walk-out for a sense of how many graduate students are fed up with having our rights as workers ignored (and in some cases, actively undermined). We formed our democratically elected union in 2017 to advocate for the labor rights of graduate workers, only to be repeatedly ignored by Loyola. On Monday, Sept. 23, the Trump administration’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) set out a plan to strip our rights to collectively bargain, claiming that graduate workers at private universities are not workers. This is the exact line that the Loyola administration has taken over the past several years.
For those unaware, life as a graduate worker is precarious–long working hours, minimal pay for vital work as research assistants, teaching assistants, or instructors of record, lack of access to affordable healthcare, the rising cost of rent in Chicago, the lack of access to quality mental health services, the cost of student fees and gym memberships, etc. During my time as a graduate worker at Loyola, I have witnessed fellow graduate workers suffering from food insecurity, workers who have been forced to take out loans for health insurance, and workers forced to take multiple outside jobs to make ends meet. We are workers who care deeply about the education of our students, but we often suffer under poor working conditions and poor pay.
Are we not simply paying our dues? Isn’t this a part of the process? Not only do I refuse to accept that part of our graduate education must include poverty wages for the invaluable and necessary work that we provide this institution, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the whole of higher education is moving toward a model that extracts as much labor from its workers as possible for as little pay as possible.
Loyola could break this pattern it could be an institution that acts on its stated social justice values.
But thus far it has not. Since the formation of the Loyola Graduate Workers’ Union, Loyola has denied our right to collective bargaining, claiming that we are merely students and not workers. Despite teaching courses, grading papers, administering tests, running labs, providing research, we are only students to this university. I would like to have it explained to the parents of my students in my own class this semester that I am only a student–not a worker. Perhaps this will prompt them to ask where their $42,000/year is going.
Over the last several years, the Loyola Graduate Workers’ Union has fought to provide better working and living conditions for its members. We have won minimal stipend increases of $500 per year (to a point), but with stipends starting at only $18,000 per year, this is still not enough to live on. We have won increased travel funding to allow us to attend conferences and engage in professionalization to better our academic futures. We have even won dental coverage for all graduate workers who need it. The administration might claim that they have provided these increases, but it is only through our actions as the Loyola Graduate Workers’ Union that these issues have even come to light. It has only been through taking direct action that we have pushed our university to finally come to terms with the reality of their graduate workers’ lives. And even still, the university has consistently denied us a seat at the bargaining table, and therefore, we have no formal bargaining power.
Monday’s Trump-dominated NLRB ruling is a plan to overturn our right to unionize, and therefore it matches the standards already set by Loyola’s administration. All three officials who voted to overturn the previous ruling have been appointed by president Trump. The one dissenting voice, and the only Democrat on the NLRB, Lauren McFerran, claimed that there is “no good basis–in law, in policy, or in fact–to take these workers’ rights away.”
A university administration that ostensibly prides itself on its Jesuit values and concern for social justice must now own up to the fact that it is hiding behind the Trump administration because it is economically beneficial.
Time and time again, Loyola has exalted themselves rhetorically by claiming to follow the virtues of social justice and social change. It is time to realize that social justice values are far more than marketing tools to be plastered on the sides of buses and trash cans downtown. If, as a part of my education, I am asked to try to rectify injustices in the world, is my own community immune to such a transformation? Is Loyola immune to its own mission? I doubt that any administrators at this university would say so; but their words and actions are quite mismatched.
Loyola’s administration can choose to bargain with our democratically elected union, or it can choose to use the Trump administration’s ruling as a chance to solidify its anti-labor stance with respect to graduate workers. Their past actions make it clear that they have chosen the latter. But it is not too late. Georgetown, New York University, Tufts, and Brandeis are all private universities which have entered into collective bargaining with their graduate worker unions. Loyola could still follow in their footsteps.
My desire is for the university to recognize that they have taken the wrong stance on this issue, and I hope that the Trump administration’s move to strip graduate workers of their labor rights can serve as a wake-up call. If this is the case, we will happily sit down at the bargaining table. If not, we will continue our efforts to better the lives of our fellow workers anyway. We care deeply about the Loyola community, its students, and its mission. Fair compensation simply means that we can more fully dedicate our time to doing the thing that we love and care about–educating the next generation, pursuing truth, and serving the needs of the Loyola community.
I implore Loyola to take a stand against the continual injustices of the Trump administration by standing with and meeting the needs of graduate workers at this university.
I look forward to hearing the response of the Loyola administration, and I hope to hear an answer to the very clear question at hand–do they stand with their graduate workers, or do they stand with the anti-labor actions of the Trump administration?