Information about Graduate Student Unionization

Princeton University recognizes and respects the role of labor unions in our workplace.  We have good and productive relationships with the six labor unions that now represent approximately 1,000 University employees.  However, we do not believe that graduate student unionization is in the best interest of our graduate students or the unique educational environment at the University.  Unionization could damage the strong collegial, collaborative, and mutually beneficial relationships that have long existed at Princeton between graduate students and members of the faculty, and between graduate students and the Graduate School.  These relationships are highly responsive to individual needs, opportunities, and circumstances, and they shape the scholarly and educational experiences at Princeton in positive ways.  The Princeton governance structure incorporates many opportunities for consultation, engagement, and responsiveness to the needs and concerns of individual graduate students and student groups.  These inevitably would change with the introduction of an outside legal entity with little familiarity with Princeton's academic mission and values as the exclusive representative of graduate students in matters relating to their assistantships in instruction and research. 

Communications from the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School

Below are materials distributed to departments and letters on unionization that have been sent to all graduate students from Sanjeev R. Kulkarni, Dean of the Graduate School and Professor of Electrical Engineering:

Fact-Checking Graduate Student Unionization Claims

November 16, 2016, letter on union card drive

March 15, 2017, update on unionization

Communications from Others at Princeton University

Below are selected links to documents, materials, letters, and other statements about unionization from Princeton University community members:

"Princeton Unionization Information Committee" - a site maintained by Princeton graduate students questioning AFT unionization efforts

Graduate student opinion piece in the Daily Princetonian, Oct. 17, 2016: "Don't Rush the Vote"

Transcription of Graduate Student Government (GSG) town hall meeting on unionization, Nov. 9, 2016

Graduate student opinion piece in the Daily Princetonian, Nov. 21, 2016: "Graduate Student Unionization Is Not a Class Struggle"

GSG Fact-Finding Report on Unionization at Peer Universities, Jan. 30, 2017

Note: As of March 2017, PGSU/AFT has a public website. The owners of the PGSU/AFT site have not responded to requests from the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School for permission to include a link to their site here. 

External Resources

Below are selected links to materials and information about unionization from sources external to Princeton University:

NLRB Aug. 2016 case history and decision allowing unionization of graduate assistants at private universities

"At What Co$t?" - a site maintained by Cornell University graduate students questioning AFT unionization efforts on that campus

"CGSU Rank and File" - a site by pro-union Cornell Unviersity graduate students upset at the loss of local autonomy promised by AFT

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Unionization

I. Significance of the National Labor Relations Board’s Recent Decision

Why is attention being paid to graduate student unions at this time?

For many years, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) held that graduate student assistants at private universities are not employees entitled to unionize because their relationship with their universities was an educational, not an economic, one. In the summer of 2016, in a decision involving Columbia University, the NLRB reversed that long-standing precedent and ruled that private university graduate teaching and research assistants are employees for purposes of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), and, therefore, are entitled to be represented by unions if they wish to be. This FAQ attempts to answer questions that may be raised by graduate students and other members of our campus community. 

Note: the term "employee" as it relates to graduate students in this FAQ means an employee for purposes of the NLRA only. 

How does the NLRB decision reconcile the distinction between students and employees?

Princeton disagrees with the notion underlying the NLRB decision that a graduate student who is engaged in research or teaching in a given semester is transformed during that semester from a student into an employee. As Princeton and its peer institutions argued to the NLRB, graduate students are fully funded for their regular program length (four to five years) and undertake teaching and research as part of their graduate education; they teach and conduct research as students, not as employees. Under the NLRB’s decision, however, any private sector graduate student who teaches or engages in research in a given semester is considered an employee during that semester, and is entitled to be represented by a union. That same student, however, would not be considered an employee during a semester in which he or she does not undertake research or teaching, and would not be entitled to union representation during that semester.

The NLRB’s Columbia University decision states that graduate assistants who perform services for compensation at the direction of their universities are statutory employees under the NLRA. Does this mean that Princeton now recognizes graduate assistants as employees for other purposes?

No. Under the NLRB’s Columbia University decision, a graduate assistant is an employee for purposes of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) only. The decision does not mean that graduate assistants are deemed employees under other laws, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) or immigration laws. In the Columbia University decision, the Board expressly declined to adopt the “primary beneficiary” standard used by courts in some FLSA cases to determine whether an individual is an employee. The NLRB instead adopted a different standard. The Board noted that the “FLSA reflects policy goals distinct from those of the [NLRA].” See Columbia University, 364 N.L.R.B. 90, 5 n. 49 (2016). The definition of a statutory employee under the NLRA reflects the policy goals of the NLRA, as determined by the NLRB. A graduate assistant’s “employment” status is determined by the law applicable to the circumstances.

Does the Columbia University decision affect the unionization rights of non-student researchers and instructors employed by the University?

No. The Columbia University decision focuses on student assistants at private universities who perform services for compensation, including services that are considered part of their education. The decision does not focus on the unionization rights of non-student researchers or instructors employed by private universities; these researchers and instructors maintain the same rights under the National Labor Relations Act they had prior to the decision.

II. The University’s Position

What is the University’s position regarding graduate student unionization?

The University recognizes and respects the role of labor unions in our workplace. We currently have six labor unions on campus, and we have good and productive relationships with them.  Graduate students have a very different (primarily educational) relationship with the University, and for the reasons cited below, the University does not believe graduate student unionization is in the best interests of the University or our graduate students. 

What are the reasons for the University’s position?

The University believes that the relationship between Princeton and its graduate students is driven by educational considerations, not economic considerations.  Our graduate students teach and conduct research as part of their education.  In its Brown University decision in 2004, the NLRB concluded that it was likely that collective bargaining would be “detrimental to the educational process.” 

The University believes that the personal interactions between our faculty members and graduate students are critical for both groups.  They enable our students and our faculty to build collegial, collaborative and mutually-beneficial relationships which often last their entire careers.  If graduate students unionize, a union representative -- someone the affected graduate student may not even know -- may serve as the exclusive spokesperson between a student and a faculty member on matters relating to the terms and conditions of the student’s AI or AR appointment.  For example, individual graduate students may not be able to make personal arrangements with their faculty adviser/PI regarding their AI/AR functions; instead, a union representative may need to be involved, or certain arrangements may be prohibited by a collective bargaining agreement.  Unionization also may alter the collegial relationships students have with their departments and with the Graduate School staff, including the dean, by constraining the topics they can discuss and their flexibility in responding to student needs and concerns.

Are there other potential consequences of unionization?

A dissenting member of the NLRB in its Columbia University decision expressed concern about students being placed in a bargaining relationship with the university:

"[E]xperience demonstrates that we cannot assume bargaining will be uneventful.  Collective bargaining may evoke extraordinarily strong feelings and give rise to a sharp clash between seemingly irreconcilable positions, and when parties resort to various tactics in support of their respective positions, such tactics are indeed weapons, and nobody can be confused about their purpose:  they are exercised with the intention of inflicting severe and potentially irreparable injury, often causing devastating damage to businesses and terrible consequences for employees . . . .  [W]hat economic weapons are available to student assistants and the universities they attend?  They would almost certainly include the following:  Strikes . . .  Lockouts . . . Loss, Suspension or Delay . . . Suspension of Tuition Waivers . . . Potential Replacement . . . Loss of Tuition Previously Paid . . . Misconduct, Potential Discharge, Academic Suspension/Expulsion Disputes."

While everyone would hope to avoid this kind of confrontation, union supporters have suggested that the threat of such actions could be used as a bargaining tactic.  As noted, collective bargaining and arbitration are, by their nature, adversarial, and they have the potential to transform our collaborative model of graduate education into one of conflict and acrimony.

What is the University’s objective with regard to the graduate student unionization process?

The University’s objective is to make sure that our graduate students have access to complete and accurate information -- i.e., the pros and cons of unionization -- so that they can make informed decisions about whether unionization is in their best interests.

III. Background Information about Unions, Unionization, and Union Representation

What is a union?

A union is an organization that serves as an agent representing a group of employees for purposes of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment, such as pay, benefits and working conditions. The negotiation process is known as “collective bargaining.” A “bargaining unit” is a specific category of employees with a community of interest (e.g., similar occupations, geographic location, duties, payment structure, review/rating system, etc.) represented by a union for purposes of collective bargaining. When a union exists, the bargaining must be between the employer and the union, not between the employer and individuals represented by the union.

What is a union contract/collective bargaining agreement?

A union contract or collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is a legally binding contract between the employees within the bargaining unit and the employer, arrived at through negotiations between the employer and the union, which sets forth the terms and conditions of employment (e.g., wages, working hours and conditions, holidays, vacations, benefits, etc.) and procedures for dispute resolution.

How does a group of employees become unionized?

Typically, a group of employees who want to unionize will affiliate with an established labor union for purposes of organizing a new chapter. Once the group has affiliated with a labor union, organizers employed by the union will collect “authorization cards” to show that at least 30% of the employees the union seeks to represent are interested in union representation.

If a union collects enough cards to constitute a valid “showing of interest,” the union can file a “representation petition.” The NLRB will then hold a secret-ballot election. If the majority of eligible voters choosing to cast ballots vote to approve the union, the union becomes the exclusive representative of all the employees in the bargaining unit for the purposes of collective bargaining with respect to wages, hours, or other conditions of employment. This is true for employees in the bargaining unit who are not interested in joining the union, as well as those who do. 

What is an authorization card? How are authorization cards used in the unionization process?

An authorization card is a signed document giving permission for a union to be the signer's exclusive representative for the purposes of negotiating the terms and conditions of that signer's employment and/or indicating that the signer wants the NLRB to hold an election. Unions collect authorization cards in an attempt to show that there is a substantial interest in unionizing and a desire to have the union serve as the exclusive bargaining agent. Thirty percent of the potential members of a bargaining unit need to sign cards for an election to occur.

Authorization cards generally must have a stated purpose of designating the union as the employee's exclusive bargaining representative and/or securing an election. Before signing any union-related document, be sure the document expresses a clear purpose and you understand what you are signing.

Am I required to provide my contact information to a union or sign any other document a union requests?

No. Although unions try to obtain information about potential voters during an organizing drive, you have no obligation to provide personal or any other information to them. Unions are not bound by privacy restrictions and can use your information for purposes of their choosing.

How do unions obtain the right to represent employees?

Union representation is determined by a secret-ballot election in which those eligible to be in the bargaining unit are invited to vote “yes” or “no” on the question of union representation. If a majority of those who vote choose union representation, all eligible voters (and those who occupy union-represented positions in the future) would be exclusively represented by the union in their dealings with the University concerning the terms and conditions of employment.

What does it mean to be represented by a union?

A union that has been certified to represent a bargaining unit of employees serves as the exclusive representative of all employees in the bargaining unit with respect to the terms and conditions of their employment. The union has the authority and exclusive right to negotiate with the employer about these subjects, and no individual employee is permitted to engage in separate negotiations over their individual employment terms. For example, if a labor contract set parameters on the work hours of Assistants in Research (ARs), individual graduate students would not be able to make personal arrangements with their Principal Investigator (PI), unless the contract provided for exceptions.

Why have some graduate students at peer institutions supported unionization?

Some graduate students at peer institutions have supported unionization because they believe it provides an avenue for graduate assistants to advocate collectively for their interests as they relate to pay, hours and other non-academic terms and conditions of their assistantships. The collective bargaining process puts in place a firm agreement for a set period of time regarding terms and conditions of their assistantships.

IV. Union Elections and Voting

What is the election process?

A representation election is a secret-ballot election conducted and supervised by representatives of the NLRB. Voting takes place in person or via a mail-in process. An election is typically held within approximately three weeks after the filing of a representation petition. Each eligible voter is free to vote however he or she wants in the secret-ballot election, regardless of whether the voter has previously signed an authorization card.

Who is eligible to vote?

Eligible voters are people who are part of the defined voting unit at the time of the election. The determination of which students would be eligible to vote would be made by the Regional Director of the NLRB in the event a petition were filed. The outcome of any election is determined by a majority of those who actually vote, not the majority of those eligible to vote. The result of the vote is binding on all students in the bargaining unit as well as those who occupy union-represented positions in the future (i.e., future ARs and AIs).

Could graduate students “opt out” of the union by not voting?

No. The results of an election would bind everyone in the bargaining unit, including students who do not vote.

If there is an election and graduate students vote NOT to unionize, can graduate students have another election at a later date?

Yes. There is a one-year waiting period after an election until another election can be held. If a majority of voters voted against union representation, the same union or a different union could seek an election one year after the vote.

If an election results in representation by a union, could there be another election to remove the union?

Once a union is certified as the exclusive representative of a bargaining unit, it remains so indefinitely and would represent all students who become employees (i.e., become AIs or ARs), as defined in the bargaining unit. The process to decertify (or remove) a union typically also requires a vote, and it is a complex process that can take years to complete.

V. Union Dues and Agency Fees

What are union dues and how are they calculated?

Dues are the cost of membership in a union. They are used to fund the various activities of the union.  There are typically national, state, and local fees.

At NYU, the only private institution whose graduate students are unionized, the union (United Auto Workers) charges its members 2% of total compensation during the semesters in which a graduate student is employed, and the dues are automatically deducted from every paycheck. According to the UAW, total compensation for purposes of dues includes wages from “union work” (i.e., from serving as a teaching assistant and/or research assistant) and the NYU funding package. It is unclear why UAW charges members based on a funding package which exists separate and apart from any obligation to teach or conduct research. In addition to dues, the UAW charges each member an initiation fee of approximately $50 (depending on pay grade). For more on NYU, see http://makingabetternyu.org/gsocuaw/for-grad-workers/ (link is external).

What are agency fees and how are they calculated?

Agency fees are the fees required by virtually every collective bargaining agreement to be paid to the union by employees who are represented by a union but choose not to be dues-paying members. If your position is covered by a union collective bargaining agreement, and you are not a registered dues-paying union member, you will be required to pay an agency fee.  That fee is determined by the union.

At NYU, if a graduate student assistant covered by the collective bargaining agreement chooses not to become a dues-paying member of the UAW, the graduate student must still pay an agency fee (that is roughly equivalent to dues and initiation fees).

What are union dues and agency fees used for?

Union dues and agency fees are used to cover the costs of collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment. In addition, unions use dues for the purpose of organizing employees of other employers. For example, at NYU, the UAW states that dues “pay the costs of organizing new workplaces.” Sometimes union dues are used to make political contributions. Agency fees generally are not used for this purpose.

Unions must annually disclose their revenues and expenditures on forms specified by the U.S. Department of Labor.  

VI. Collective Bargaining

What areas are generally subject to collective bargaining?

As noted in the NLRB’s Columbia University decision, “Congress has limited the mandate or duty to bargain to matters of ‘wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment.’”  In the context of graduate student unionization, these areas likely will include wages, hours and other terms and conditions of AI and AR appointments, although the full scope of collective bargaining regarding student assistants remains to be developed in future decisions of the NLRB.

What areas are generally NOT subject to bargaining?

Matters unrelated to wages, hours and other terms and conditions of AI and AR appointments are generally not subject to bargaining.  In other words, subjects relating to one’s status as a student -- and not relating to one’s status as an employee -- would generally not be subject to bargaining.  For example, this may include the amount of University fellowship stipends paid to students, determination of who is admitted to the Graduate School, assignment of advisers and committees, determination of whether certain courses will be made available to graduate students, curricular requirements, course content, research requirements and similar issues.  The University’s position is that housing is not subject to collective bargaining, as housing is related to one’s status as a student and not one’s status as an AI or AR.

Can a union require the University to bargain over providing more housing for graduate students? Is housing a mandatory subject of collective bargaining?

No. A union cannot insist on bargaining about or require a university to build more housing or divert existing housing to graduate students. These decisions are reserved to management. They are the type of decisions that the United States Supreme Court has described as “a major commitment of capital investment” or “a basic operational change in the scope or direction of an enterprise.” See First National Maintenance Corp. v. NLRB, 452 U.S. 666, 673 (1981). These types of decisions are “akin to the decision whether to be in business at all, not in [themselves] primarily about conditions of employment, though the effect of the decision[s] may be necessarily to [affect conditions of] employment,” and as such are not mandatory subjects of collective bargaining. Id. at 677.  First National Maintenance Corporation (relating to a business’s decision to close part of its operations) is the leading case explaining that fundamental business decisions are not bargainable. See also Dorsey Trailers, Inc. v. N.L.R.B., 233 F.3d 831, 842 (4th Cir. 2000) (“The ability to decide where to commit investment capital is so fundamental to the basic direction of a corporate enterprise” that such a decision is not a mandatory subject of collective bargaining. (Quoting Fibreboard Paper Products Corp. v. NLRB, 379 U.S. 203, 223 (1964) (Stewart, J., concurring))). 

We are aware of only one housing case in the graduate student unionization context - a case involving the University of Illinois at Springfield. There, the university unilaterally increased housing rates. The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board (IELRB), relying on NLRB cases, found that housing rates did not impact wages, hours, or terms and conditions of employment of graduate student assistants, and thus housing rates were not a mandatory subject of bargaining. In particular, the IELRB determined that on-campus housing was offered to the general student body and not just graduate student assistants; graduate student assistants paid the same housing rates as other students; and graduate student assistants were paying housing rates in their capacity as students, not as employees. The IELRB concluded that the bargaining unit members were not receiving any cost benefit by virtue of their employment; therefore, housing rates were not a mandatory subject of bargaining. See Association of Graduate Employees, UPI Local 4100, IFT/ AFT, AFLCIO, 2010 WL 6762499 (IELRB Oct. 21, 2010)

Can a union require the University to bargain over creating more teaching opportunities for graduate assistants?

No. Creating more teaching opportunities would require the University to either (1) offer more courses, or (2) allow graduate students to teach their own courses (which the University does not permit). Both decisions are fundamental academic decisions that the University would not be required to bargain over. As recognized in Sweezy v. New Hampshire—a landmark case on academic freedom—a university has the right “to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.” 354 U.S. 234, 263 (1957) (Frankfurter, J., concurring).

Can a union bargain over student fees?

It is unclear whether student fees are a matter over which a union may require the University to bargain since these fees are charged to all graduate students regardless of whether they serve as research or teaching assistants.

Currently, Princeton charges a Student Health Plan (SHP) fee, which is included in the overall tuition charge that is in most cases paid for at no cost to the student. The University does not permit students to waive out of the SHP fee. Ph.D. students who are in absentia and/or in DCE status also pay the mandatory SHP fee. Students are charged a one-time transcript fee of $75 and an annual student activities fee, which increases annually at the same rate as the University Fellowship stipend increase. The activity fee for 2015-16 was $16 and is allocated to the Graduate Student Government.

What if an individual graduate student objected to a provision in the labor contract? Would he or she still be bound by it?

Yes. Collective bargaining focuses on graduate students as a group, not as individuals. This means that a union would speak and act for all graduate students in the bargaining unit, and the provisions in the labor contract would apply to all unit members, unless exceptions are provided for in the contract.

How long does it take to negotiate a union contract?

It varies. The negotiation process for first labor contracts typically lasts a year or longer, during which time the status quo remains in effect (i.e., nothing changes during this time). However, it is impossible to predict how long contract negotiations would take. Likewise, it is impossible to predict the provisions of any negotiated contract.

VII. Dispute Resolution under a Union Contract

How are disputes resolved if there is a union contract?

Union contracts have grievance and arbitration provisions for the resolution of disputes. The grievance and arbitration process can be time-consuming and often legalistic.

How could a union impact the grievance process?

A union would likely negotiate a contractual grievance process, but there is no guarantee that it would be different than or an improvement over the existing procedures set forth in Rights, Rules, Responsibilities 2.6.7. With or without a union, the Graduate School is committed to continuing to work to foster an environment where there is open dialogue and transparency and where all students feel comfortable using the grievance process when it is needed.

What typically happens when the union or graduate student assistant files a grievance?

Under most collective bargaining agreements, a grievance may be filed when there is a dispute between the employer and the union, an employee, or a group of employees about an alleged misapplication or misinterpretation of the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. The grievance procedure is not intended to address matters that do not fall within the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.  Grievances are typically handled in steps, with an appeal available after each step.  The grievance process can be complicated and time-consuming.  Assuming a typical four-step grievance process that culminates in arbitration, the process would look something like this:

  • At the initial step, the union or graduate student employee typically files a written description of the complaint (grievance) and presents it to the grievant’s supervisor or a designated office. After receipt of the grievance, a step one grievance meeting is scheduled within a certain number of days. Those in attendance will typically include the supervisor, a labor relations or HR specialist, a union representative, and the employee. After the step one grievance meeting, the supervisor will respond in writing to the union within a certain number of days.
  • If a satisfactory outcome is not reached in step one, the union may appeal to the next level of administration, likely the department chair. A step two grievance meeting will be scheduled, which will likely include a labor relations or HR specialist, department chair (or designee), a union representative and the employee. After the step two grievance meeting is held, the department chair will respond in writing to the union within a certain number of days.
  • If a satisfactory outcome is not reached in step two, typically the union may appeal to the next level of administration, likely the dean of the graduate school or provost. After meeting with the union to discuss the grievance, the dean/provost will render a decision.
  • If a satisfactory outcome is not reached in step three, the union (which initiated the grievance) may take the grievance to arbitration. A labor arbitrator, who likely will be unfamiliar with the intricacies of the University’s academic environment, will be appointed to decide the dispute and render a decision that will binding on both parties.

Each step of the grievance process and arbitration will require considerable time and resources of all parties.

VIII. Current Union Representation and Potential Impact of Graduate Student Unionization

 Are There Unions at Princeton?

Yes. At Princeton, six staff unions represent approximately 20% of our workforce, including public safety and security officers, cogeneration plant employees, library assistants, and hourly service employees in dining services and building services, among others.

Who would be in a graduate student union at Princeton if one were established?

It is likely that it would include all AIs and ARs, although the precise composition of the bargaining unit would not be defined until a labor union filed a petition seeking to represent graduate students at the University. Under federal labor law, members of a bargaining unit must have a clear and identifiable community of interest (e.g., similar occupations, geographic location, duties, payment structure, review/rating system, etc.).

Unlike representation in Princeton’s other bargaining units, which only include individuals who continually occupy the status of employee, representation by a union would be on an episodic basis for many graduate students at Princeton. Under the NLRB’s decision, a private sector graduate student who teaches or engages in research in a given semester is only considered an employee and entitled to union representation during the period in which he or she serves as an AI or AR.

What if a graduate student does not believe he or she is an “employee” when teaching or doing research?

Even though serving as an AR and performing research that leads to a dissertation is a requirement of the Ph.D. in many departments, and even though most Princeton graduate students seek out teaching opportunities as an important part of their educational experience, the NLRB has decided students are employees when they are engaged in these activities. This means that in the event Princeton graduate students seek an election to be represented by a union, all AIs and ARs could be included in a bargaining unit specified by the union. If a union were to win an election, all AIs and ARs included in the bargaining unit would be bound by a negotiated union contract, irrespective of their individual preferences.

If a union won an election at Princeton, would graduate student “employees” have to join it?

They would not have to “join” the union, but they would be represented by it.  Under federal law, you cannot be forced to join a union. However, a union can negotiate a provision in a collective bargaining agreement that requires non-members to pay an agency fee to the union in order to be able to teach or serve as a research assistant. The agency fee is usually about the same amount as union dues. The terms of the contract are binding on all employees in the bargaining unit whether or not they join the union.

Are graduate students required to meet with a union organizer or admit a union organizer into their homes or offices? 

No.

Would status as an international graduate student impact one’s ability to be included in the union?

No. The process for determining who is included in the bargaining unit applies to all graduate students regardless of international status.

Would all members of the bargaining unit be represented by the union, even if they are not union members?

Yes. A union would represent every person in the bargaining unit and the terms of any negotiated contract would be binding on all current and future ARs and AIs included in the bargaining unit during the term of the contract.

If a union wins an election, will graduate students’ stipends and teaching compensation increase?

University Fellowship stipends are financial aid support and would not be subject to collective bargaining. We do not know whether compensation for teaching or research assistantships (which are probably an appropriate subject of collective bargaining) would change.

What would a union prevent graduate students from doing?

A full answer to this question would depend on what is included in the labor contract, but a student’s legal right to negotiate the terms and conditions of his or her own employment as an individual would change, and the union would become the agent of all graduate student employees in the bargaining unit with respect to these matters. For example, if a labor contract set parameters on the work hours of ARs, individual graduate students would not be able to make personal arrangements with their PI, unless the contract provided for exceptions.

How might unionization change or affect an AI appointment?

If an AI wanted to modify how he/she carried out his/her functions (or the terms or conditions of the AI appointment), this would likely require negotiation with the union if the modifications departed from the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.  Similarly, if a faculty member wanted to modify how the AI carried out the AI’s functions (or the terms or conditions of the AI appointment), this would likely require negotiation with the union if the modifications departed from the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. 

In other words, the graduate student and the faculty member likely could not work together to address these issues as they do now.  

What are some concrete examples of how unionization might change or affect an AI appointment?

During the time graduate students at NYU were unionized in the early 2000s, despite an explicit provision in the collective bargaining agreement that gave the university the right to exercise sole authority on all decisions involving academic matters, the graduate student union challenged academic decisions of NYU.

Below are examples of how unionization might affect instructional opportunities at the University.

  • The union could take the position that before a professor can change an exam from a multiple-choice to short essay, for example, the professor must bargain over that change with the union, since the new exam expands the workload of AIs.  If the professor does not resolve the matter to the union’s satisfaction, the union could file a grievance, which could ultimately be resolved by a labor arbitrator, who has little familiarity with academic matters.
  • The union could take the position that before an AI for a particular course can be replaced or reassigned, either at the request of the AI or the faculty member, the parties would need to proceed with a formal union proceeding.  If the matter is not resolved to the union’s satisfaction, the union could file a grievance, which could ultimately be resolved by a labor arbitrator.  In this case, no longer would the faculty member and the AI be able to arrive at an informal resolution that both find mutually acceptable.

What are some concrete examples of how unionization might change or affect an AR appointment?

If a union seeks to set parameters on the work hours of ARs, individual graduate students may not be able to make personal arrangements with their faculty supervisor/PI regarding work hours.  The union contract could set limits on the number of hours an AR could work.   

In addition, the union could take the position that before an AR can be replaced or reassigned, the parties would need to proceed with a formal union proceeding.  If the matter is not resolved to the union’s satisfaction, the union could file a grievance, which could ultimately be resolved by a labor arbitrator.  In this case, no longer would the faculty member and the AR be able to arrive at an informal resolution that both find mutually acceptable.

If graduate students unionize, can faculty supervisors continue to communicate directly with graduate students?

In some instances, no. Under federal labor law, graduate student teachers/researchers are deemed “employees,” and their advisors are deemed “supervisors.” Normal discourse that takes place between faculty and students with respect to assistantships could be altered, as the union would be the exclusive bargaining agent for students in the bargaining unit on all issues related to the terms and conditions of their AI / AR appointment.  In the example above, if a collective bargaining agreement set parameters on the work hours of AIs /ARs, individual graduate students may not be able to communicate directly with their faculty advisors to make personal arrangements regarding work hours.

Under the labor laws, unionized employees have the right to insist that a union representative accompany them to any investigatory meeting which they believe may result in discipline.  This means that ordinary informal meetings between faculty advisors and graduate students regarding a myriad of subjects may be converted to three-party events, with a union representative becoming involved in the discussion, if the graduate assistant or the union believes that the meeting falls into the “investigatory” category. The union may also seek to include standard grievance provisions for the resolution of disputes involving AIs and ARs.  Issues that might otherwise have been resolved informally through discussion between the student and faculty member or formally by Graduate School administration might need to be resolved through the grievance process specified in the collective bargaining agreement. 

If an AR currently serves on a sponsored research grant, how might unionization impact how funds under that grant are expended?

The NLRB ruled in the Columbia University case that the source of a graduate student’s funding is not relevant to the determination of whether that student is considered an employee.  That means that if a union negotiated certain wage or benefit levels for all graduate assistants, the sponsored grant would be required to meet the wage and benefit levels, even if it could not support the contractual requirement. 

What impact could a union have on off-site research activities (e.g. conference/workshop attendance, field work, or research conducted at other universities) that are essential activities for our academic program?

We do not know at this time. To the extent such activities are part of the assistantship in instruction or research, funding for conferences, travel and other activities could be subject to negotiation with the union. 

If there were a graduate student union, could graduate students continue to sit on departmental and school committees?

Probably so, but with some limitations. As set forth in Rights, Rules, Responsibilities 2.1.1, generally each graduate school department has a graduate student departmental committee, which acts as a liaison between the faculty and the graduate student body of the department. The committees of graduate students can review, discuss, and comment on proposals for major changes in the department’s graduate program before action on such proposals by the faculty of the department.

A union would be the exclusive voice to the University for all students it represents on pay, work hours, and other employment matters related to teaching and research assistantships. The Graduate Student Government (GSG) would likely not play a role in these matters. Other avenues of communication between graduate student teachers/research assistants and the University, such as departmental committees, might be restricted or limited with respect to these issues.

Is there any example of graduate students at a private university going on strike?

Yes. At Yale University, after many years of organizing in an attempt to obtain recognition from and bargain collectively with Yale, the members of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) voted in December 1995, to conduct a “grade strike” at the end of the fall 1995 semester. Approximately 200 graduate students who were either teaching their own classes or assisting faculty in teaching classes (teaching fellows or TFs) refused to submit their students’ final grades for the semester to the University, although they performed other teaching duties. The striking TFs hoped that their action would cause the University to begin negotiations toward a labor agreement.   The students were disciplined, and they filed a charge at the NLRB.  After a trial, the Administrative Law Judge and the NLRB concluded that the student strike was unlawful.

In addition, graduate students at NYU went on strike in 2005 after that university withdrew recognition of the union in the wake of a change in the law. That strike lasted approximately one semester.

Many state universities have unions. Wouldn’t it be the same here?

Not necessarily. Comparisons to state universities are difficult for several reasons. The risks and rewards of pursuing a bargaining subject, acceding to a demand, demanding arbitration or engaging in a strike are much clearer for state universities because public sector labor law addresses these issues. For example, many states have written into their labor laws provisions that protect academic decisions of universities from the collective bargaining process. Thus, there are protections in the law that prevent unions from interfering in academic matters at public universities. Federal labor law (which would be applicable to collective bargaining in the context of private universities) has not been tailored to address the needs of higher education, and so these protections are not currently included in federal law.

Graduate students fill different roles at private universities than they do at public universities. Not all graduate students at public universities receive the equivalent of University Fellowships. At private universities such as Princeton, teaching is viewed as an integral part of the educational experience. Similarly, the process of engaging in research as a prerequisite to earning the Ph.D. is embedded in the curriculum at Princeton, and is not typically perceived as “employment” by students or faculty.

What are the alternatives to unionizing?

Graduate student voices matter at Princeton. Graduate students provide input and shape decisions on matters that impact them directly through Graduate Student Departmental Committees and the Graduate Student Government, among other means. The GSG holds monthly meetings, which may be attended by Graduate School leadership. GSG officers and representatives meet regularly with staff within the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School. Graduate School leadership and key administrators in the University Services department meet regularly with the GSG to discuss issues of concern for graduate students, solicit feedback, and provide updates.

In addition, the Graduate Housing Advisory Board (composed of representatives from the different graduate housing complexes and the GSG) meets monthly with Housing and Graduate School staff members. The GSG Events Board meets every two weeks along with Graduate School staff to allocate funding for graduate student groups. The Community Programs Coordinator attends monthly meetings with each of the graduate student residential committees. Graduate students serve on the University Student Life Committee (along with the Dean of the Graduate School, Associate Dean of Student Life and various other University administrators). Graduate students serve on the University Priorities Committee, chaired by the Provost, which makes recommendations on the allocation of certain resources, including increases to stipend levels.  Graduate students often serve in the search process for Graduate School positions, as well as key University positions. Graduate students served on the Future of the Graduate School taskforce. Individual students routinely meet with members of the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School to discuss areas those staff members oversee: academics, professional development, finances, student life, and diversity and inclusion.

By taking full advantage of existing mechanisms and opportunities for input and potentially suggesting new ones, graduate students can continue to shape policies and programs at Princeton. If a union were organized at Princeton, graduate students who are not serving as AIs or ARs in a particular semester would be in a different category than those who are, and the issues these respective groups could address would be different. This could reduce the capacity of existing governance and consultative structures to involve all graduate students in their activities and engagements.

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FAQs posted on August 24, 2016. Most recent update on April 19, 2017.