Memo from Dean Priestley on Unionization (Tuesday, February 28, 2023)


February 28, 2023

Dear Graduate Students,

I am writing to you regarding activities and communications you may have seen recently on the topic of graduate student unionization. We understand that a group of graduate students known as Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU) are in the process of conducting an organizing drive, or card drive, to be represented by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE).

Please know that as dean of the Graduate School, I respect your right to make an informed decision and decide based on your own convictions. The Graduate School staff and I would like to share information that may be helpful as you consider your individual decision. We also encourage you to find out as much as you can about unionization and the affiliated labor union, including its track record in negotiating collective bargaining contracts for graduate students at private universities.

Most importantly, we want to make sure that each graduate student can form their own decision without any pressure from the institution or its constituents, including students for or against unionization and faculty. The University cannot tolerate intimidation or coercion from any member of our community toward another member regarding their position on unionization.

The goals of this memo and accompanying documents are to help you become fully-informed about this important issue. When deciding whether or not a union is right for Princeton graduate students, you may want to consider how the demands shared by those advocating for a union compare with the support already provided to graduate students at Princeton (see attached support for graduate students document). Providing holistic support and an environment for all graduate students to thrive has always been a top priority for Princeton, and that commitment will continue whether or not our students are represented by a union. 

By design, union representation would change some aspects of your relationship with the University, and we do have some concerns about how such representation would affect your education and experience at Princeton.  You may also have many questions about how unionization would impact you and your relationships with your fellow students, your faculty advisers, and others in our community. Which aspects of your relationships with the University and your advisers would be negotiated by the union and governed by the contract? What cannot be negotiated through union bargaining?[1] How would our culture around graduate education change? Faculty advisers may also wonder how their role as mentors might be affected.

You should also consider that union representation, and the attendant collective bargaining obligation, impose certain obligations on all graduate students and restrictions on employer’s ability to deviate from the terms of the contract to accommodate individual needs. If union recognition were approved through an NLRB election, a contract would then be negotiated between the union and the University. That contract would be binding for all current and future Princeton graduate students in the bargaining unit, whether they signed an authorization card or not and whether they voted for unionization or not.

One of the principal aims of labor unions is to give workers a voice. As you know, the University already offers many opportunities for graduate students to participate in University governance. These opportunities ensure that graduate students’ voices are heard and that we endeavor together to build a community where all students can thrive and forge a lifelong relationship with Princeton and Princetonians. Some examples include graduate student representation in the Graduate Student Government, Council of the Princeton University Community, Priorities Committee, University Student Life Committee, Graduate Housing Advisory Board, Student Health Plan Advisory Council, and Graduate Student Departmental Committees. Graduate students also serve on search committees for positions in the Graduate School as well as other key University positions. Graduate student participation in the University’s governance structure enables robust and effective dialogue between graduate students and the administration.

Your voice is crucially important as you consider this unionization question. We, therefore, believe it is essential for you to be fully informed before deciding whether or not unionization is right for you and your fellow graduate students at Princeton. As such, the Graduate School will be offering updates and other opportunities for communication in the coming weeks where we can discuss your questions and hear your thoughts in-person, this week and in the weeks ahead. I encourage you to review the Frequently Asked Questions About Unions document on the Graduate School website, also attached here for your convenience.

I look forward to meeting with several of you during my regularly scheduled office hours this week to discuss any topic which you deem important and relevant to graduate education at Princeton.


Rodney Priestley
Dean of the Graduate School

[1] For instance, housing is not subject to collective bargaining, as it is related to one’s status as a student and not one’s status as an AI or AR.