Loyola Graduate Student Workers Vote to Unionize

Grace Runkel | The PHOENIXLoyola graduate student Liza DiStefano voted to unionize because she said she doesn’t make livable working wages as a teaching and research assistant for Loyola.

Loyola graduate student workers from the College of Arts and Sciences voted to unionize on Feb. 8, becoming one of the first graduate student unions at a private university.

Out of 210 eligible voters, 120 students cast a ballot, according to a statement by Loyola Provost and Chief Academic Officer John Pelissero. Of those ballots, 71 voted “yes” to unionizing under the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73.

This means about 60 percent of ballots were in favor of the union, but only about 34 percent of the entire eligible pool made the decision.

Loyola graduate student Liza DiStefano said she voted to unionize because she was not earning a livable wage as a teaching and research assistant at Loyola.

DiStefano said her monthly stipend of $2,000 before taxes was not enough to cover all of her bills and expenses. She said her cell phone bill has often gone unpaid and she had to sell her car because she could no longer afford it.

DiStefano said a union would help graduate students earn the higher wages they deserve.

“I feel that academia really falls into the working class the way that it’s set up now. As graduate students getting paid for academic work, I think that we fall into that category, as well,” DiStefano said. “So I think that’s why we need a union: to kind of fight for our rights, that even though we’re students we are workers employed by the university making working class wage.”

The Loyola graduate student union will be the third union of graduate student workers created at a private university since the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decided in August 2016 that all graduate student workers should be allowed to unionize, according to a statement from SEIU.

Previously, unions were only allowed at public universities and colleges because those workers fall under federal jurisdiction. NLRB’s ruling came in response to a petition from student workers at Columbia University in New York.

The SEIU celebrated the vote, stating that Loyola’s Jesuit status has led it astray from affordable education.

“While Jesuit institutions strive to promote social justice, the everyday reality is that many Jesuit colleges and universities have moved toward a more corporate model,” the SEIU wrote.

Pelissero expressed his dissatisfaction with the vote in a Feb. 8 statement on Loyola’s website.

“It is unfortunate that such a small percentage of the voting group determined the outcome for so many others,” Pelissero stated.

But to DiStefano, the union will be a chance to concentrate on her work and worry less about her bills.

“Maybe I can finally stop focusing all this energy on managing my financial situation, worrying about, ‘Do I have enough to get to the next month?’ and actually focus it back into what I came here to do, which is study, do research [and] focus on my school work,” she said.

But some graduate student workers were not allowed to vote on the union. The university cited a religious exemption for graduate students in the theology department, meaning they wouldn’t be able to unionize because of religious affiliation, according to Meghan Toomey, a fourth-year Loyola graduate student in the theology department.

There are more than 50 graduate students in the theology department, but it’s uncertain how many work for the university, according to Joshua King, a second year graduate student in the theology department.

Toomey, who works as an instructor, said she doesn’t think the theology department should have been excluded from the union.

“If we were religious leaders, I do think the exemption would make sense, without question. But I know that I’m here to study academics,” Toomey said.

Toomey and King, who work as teaching assistants, said that while their department was kept in the loop about the petition to unionize, the university didn’t consult the theology graduate students about being exempt from the union.

Toomey and King both said they support the outcome of the vote given the needs of many of their peers and colleagues who have families. They also said they remain hopeful that workers in the theology department won’t be left behind in regards to new agreements made with the union.

The university will now move forward with negotiating a contract for the unionized workers after it addressed its appreciation for graduate student workers’ input, according to Pelissero’s statement.

“Thank you to those who provided that feedback throughout this election and everyone who participated in the vote. Your careful consideration of this important issue is appreciated, and I look forward to continuing our conversations in the future,” Pelissero wrote.

Previously, the university stated in a frequently asked questions segment that Loyola
disapproves of unions because it can get in the way of the university’s communication with its workers.

“As we have stated to our graduate assistants, our preference is to maintain a direct relationship with them — without interference from SEIU, an organization that may not understand our university, our mission as Chicago’s Jesuit, Catholic university or our values,” the statement reads.

The university has repeatedly taken this stance regarding past union votes at Loyola. The unionization of the graduate students is the third to occur at Loyola in a little more than a year.

In April 2016, eight of 11 eligible faculty members in the English Language Learning Program (ELLP) voted to unionize under SEIU.

After that vote, senior Vice President for Administrative Services Thomas Kelly expressed the university’s unhappiness that the NLRB took responsibility for the ELLP faculty.

“We remain disappointed that the NLRB does not recognize Loyola’s religious identity and continues to use its narrow definition of “religious” to rule on jurisdiction matters,” Kelly wrote in a statement on Loyola’s website.

In January 2016, 142 part- and full-time non-tenure faculty members from the College of Arts and Sciences voted to unionize under SEIU.

Kelly stated Loyola’s disapproval for that outcome in a statement worded similarly to Pelissero’s.

“We are disappointed that under the NLRB rules, 44 percent of the voting group determined the outcome for so many others,” Kelly wrote.

Additional reporting by Grace Runkel and Madeline Kenney.

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