By: Gina Gemmel

In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing a series of posts on what exactly a union is and how a healthy, active union can benefit workers.  But today I want to start by discussing the concept of a “worker.”

Is a graduate employee a worker?  Most graduate students who hold assistantships, whether they work in an office, a classroom, or doing research, consider themselves to be primarily students.  This might be because some grads see themselves more as apprentices than employees, because we associate being an employee with a more structured, 9-5 type of job, or because we are often encouraged by our departments to give most of our attention to our studies.  Whatever the reason, one of the first hurdles to overcome in discussing unions with graduate employees is simply convincing us that we are workers who could benefit from a union.

We are definitely workers, though.  We provide essential services, without which UIC would not be able to operate.  Whether we do research in labs, teach students in classrooms, or work in an office, the university could not keep functioning without the almost 1,400 graduate employees who do work every day.  As an organization, UIC could not keep operations running without the hard work of Graduate Assistants in offices all over campus.  UIC could not sustain its status a research university without Research Assistants performing experiments and supporting the work of faculty members*.  And of course, without Teaching Assistants in classrooms, UIC could not fulfill its mission of educating students.  All of these roles are clearly vital, and they are all roles for which we receive a compensation, which is another critical indicator that we are, in fact, workers.

Graduate students with assistantships perform all of this vital work, and as a result the university is able to continue running.  Acknowledging the work we perform as work has become an important issue in recent years as universities have shifted their labor force toward the contingent end of the spectrum.  According to the US Department of Education, only 27% of instructors were full-time, tenure-track teachers*.  The remaining 73% of instructors were contingent workers, including graduate students and adjuncts.  Not only are we workers; we are doing the work that used to be done by full-time, higher-paid workers – you know, those people we all traditionally consider to be workers!

I will be writing more on this topic in the coming weeks, but the preceding information should not only illustrate why what we do as graduate employees is work, but also why we need to raise our collective voice to influence the direction the university is headed in.  We make up a significant portion of the university workforce, and as such, we should have a say in our own working conditions and the operations of the university.  Unionization is the best way to achieve these things.

*Although the GEO believes that Research Assistants are workers, there is currently a law in IL preventing them from being a part of the bargaining unit of a union.  The GEO would like to see this law overturned in the future so that RAs could take advantage of all the benefits guaranteed to TAs and GAs through the GEO contract.

*http://aft.org/issues/highered/acadstaffing.cfm