Graduate Union Denied Recognition by Administration

Christopher Hacker | The PHOENIXGraduate students protest in favor of collective bargaining months before the university rejected their request

Loyola’s graduate student union, which has been demanding higher wages and recognition as a union since February, won’t be negotiated with by the university administration, the group learned Oct. 17.

The letter detailing the declination, from Loyola Provost John Pelissero and Provost of the Health Sciences Division Margaret Callahan, came after an eight-month silence from the university administration.

 “After careful discernment, we informed the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) of our decision to decline to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement for certain graduate assistants,” Callahan said in an email to The PHOENIX. “Our decision is based on our position that graduate assistants who are engaged in teaching and research as part of their academic program are fundamentally students, and therefore do not qualify as ‘employees’ within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act.”

Pelissero could not be reached for comment through email or by phone.

The letter read that the university recently created a new online resource for graduate assistants called, which provides a platform to submit inquiries, access the administration’s official philosophy on unions and find answers to frequently asked questions.

Graduate assistants work up to 20 hours per week and duties may include grading assignments, holding office hours, working with students in labs, mentoring and tutoring, proctoring exams, teaching classes and preparing course material, based on Loyola’s Teaching Assistantship Guidelines, which set parameters for performing duties and conditions for termination from the assistantship.

Graduate students in the College of Arts and Sciences, who received stipends for assistantships, were eligible to vote for the unionization. However, this excluded those in the theology department. The university claimed the department’s exemption last year was due to its religious affiliations.

Liza DiStefano, 24, is studying social psychology and is a graduate assistant, the conditions and duties of which she says merit a full-time job.

As part of the contract, assistants are expected to work the set number of hours per week and not hold outside jobs, according to DiStefano. A 2016 graduate school acceptance letter reads that “outside employment, including teaching and hourly employment, may not be held during the award period.”

The campaign to form a graduate student union started in fall 2016.

Eligible graduate students voted to unionize with the SEIU Local 73 last February, following a decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to allow private institutions like Loyola to unionize alongside public universities.

The graduate student union won in a 71 out of 120 student vote, The PHOENIX previously reported.

The provost’s letter came a day after another letter, detailing a yearly stipend increase of $500 from the graduate students’ base salaries, was sent to the union.

“They’re obviously trying to throw us a bone,” DiStefano said about the first two instances of contact the university sent the organizers after eight months.

Callahan said that both she and Pelissero’s office were aware of the stipend increase before declining negotiation of bargaining.

“In addition to the stipend increase, we are providing additional enhancements to the graduate assistant experience [which are] the result of a multi-year review that included direct graduate assistant feedback and market research,” Callahan wrote in an email to The Phoenix.

According to the website, some of these enhancements include money awarded for travel and the university organizing “new graduate assistant affinity groups and engagement activities, including meetings with senior administration leaders.”

Nathan Ellstrand, a graduate student studying history and part of the bargaining unit for the union, said the yearly stipends for assistants originally started at $12,000 for master’s students and $18,000 for doctoral students.

After the stipend increase, the base stipend for all assistants, including those outside the College of Arts and Sciences, will be $18,000 with an increase of $500 per academic year, DiStefano said.

A non-tenured faculty union also formed at Loyola in 2016. This union is still pursuing an official contract, according to non-tenured English professor Brian Mornar, who is part of the adjunct/non-tenure worker union. Eligible union members are faculty at Loyola who are not hired full-time by the school and some may hold positions at other universities.

The faculty union has been holding bargaining statements with the university since 2016, according to Mornar, with hopes of having a contract by the end of this year.

Brock Johnson, a senior at Loyola studying sociology, is part of Students for Worker Justice. The organization joins undergraduates interested in worker unionizations and fair wages for all employees of Loyola to collaborate with groups on campus like the graduate union.

“The university’s budgeting decisions impact all of us,” Johnson said in an email to The Phoenix. “It is quite clear that the vast majority of the campus community has absolutely no say in matters regarding the university’s finances.”

The union set bargaining goals this past summer and joined with the faculty union under the Loyola Worker Coalition in the fall.

The coalition combines non-tenure faculty and graduate student workers with undergraduate students and groups such as Students for Worker Justice, along with “tenured faculty, alumni, and other community allies around their shared stake in a more equitable higher education,” according to the coalition’s Facebook page.

Alec Stubbs, who helped organize a budgeting meeting for the Loyola Worker Coalition on Oct. 18, said in an email that the meeting “[started] a conversation concerning Loyola’s budget and how it is directly affecting not only the lives of its graduate students, but also undergraduate students, staff, faculty and the surrounding community.”

In declining to recognize or negotiate with the graduate student union, DiStefano and Stubbs said that the administration’s decision fails to align with Loyola’s tenets of social justice, as well as values of Catholic Social Teaching.

“It is just and acceptable to … address [the graduate students’] needs and give them a voice, but it need not be through a union,” said’s statement on unions and Catholic Social Teaching. “It should also be noted that 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.”

DiStefano said the graduate student union doesn’t want to be paid the same amount the non-tenured faculty members are calling for — they want a say in their job.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said the stipend increase for graduate assistants was $500 per semester, instead of $500 per academic year.

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