Graduate Student 101

What is a union?
A union is a member-led body with legally recognized negotiating power. A union protects and promotes the interests of its constituents – not the interests of abstract bodies like governments, businesses or university administrations. A union is also a community – in this case of graduate students – who work together to identify and address the issues facing them.
Why are Princeton grads organizing a union?

Our contributions, both as teachers and researchers, is integral to the success of the university’s mission (and the Graduate School agrees! See page 8). We fundamentally believe that graduate student work is valuable and should be recognized as labor, formalized in a contract through bargaining as equals. The first step is building a community of graduate students so that we can more effectively advocate for our needs.

Why form a Union?

A union empowers us to democratically determine our priorities, to negotiate as equals for improvements in our working and living conditions, to put those improvements into a legally binding contract, and to build solidarity, transparency, and advocate together for the needs of our diverse community.

What does the unionization process look like?

The first step in the process is to build community support through on-campus organizing. When a critical mass of graduate students signal their support, we will petition the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) to hold an election. In conversation with the NLRB and the university administration, we will determine the timeframe and specifics of the election. Then we vote! After a “yes” vote, we assemble a democratically elected bargaining committee, which enters directly into contract negotiations with the University. Finally, the negotiated contract will be ratified by graduate students in a second vote.

What is collective bargaining?

Our conditions of employment are currently set unilaterally by the graduate school. Under collective bargaining, graduate students would negotiate as equals with the university administration, which would equalizes the power imbalance between employees and their employer. Members of the PGSU bargaining committee will be democratically elected by the graduate student body. If a graduate union is certified at Princeton, the National Labor Relations board will require the university to enter into negotiations with graduate workers. Once the university and bargaining committee come to an agreement, the contract will go before the graduate worker body for a ratification vote. If the contract is accepted it will go into effect, and if not, the committee returns to the table with management and continues bargaining.

What issues can collective bargaining address? Can we bargain over housing and CPT?

Yes! According to the National Labor Relations Board (see page 20), there are three categories of issues with regards to collective bargaining:

  1. Mandatory issues, such as wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment must be bargained over.
  2. Illegal issues would be those that would contravene state, local, or federal laws.
  3. Non-mandatory issues are everything that is neither mandatory or illegal, and could include issues such as housing, professional development programs, programs for international students, etc.

For example, the University of Michigan graduate union used the collective bargaining process to ensure paid graduate student positions on the university’s diversity, equality and inclusion committee, and MIT is currently bargaining for CPT.

What will our union look like?

This is our union. Graduate students determine our goals, priorities, constitution and structure. By building an inclusive union that can advocate the needs of students in every department and discipline, we can insure a more transparent and democratic graduate student experience here at Princeton and build collective power to improve our working conditions.

Why should I vote yes for a graduate union?

Graduate workers do a large amount of the teaching, grading, grant-winning research, and administrative work here at Princeton. However, we face arbitrary and/or reversible compensation and benefits and an increasingly precarious market for academic labor. As a union, we can work to ensure adequate benefits, clear workload expectations, and transparent employment policies through collective bargaining. This includes protections against workplace discrimination and harassment–the union is an advocate for all students.

Signing a Union Card

What does it mean to sign the union card?

By signing the union card, you express support for the formation of the graduate worker union at Princeton. The union will address the issues standing in the way of the research we came here to do, fighting for things like comprehensive healthcare and affordable housing.

When you sign a union card, you are calling for Princeton to either recognize the union right away or hold an election for all grads on campus to vote on whether or not they want to be represented by a union.

Is my union card confidential?

Yes. Your union card will only be seen by the NLRB and possibly by PGSU organizers entering data. There is a very small chance that Princeton would agree to voluntarily recognize our union (before there is an election). In that case, either a third party or the Princeton designee would receive our cards. That means Princeton has decided to accept the union on campus!

If I’m an international student, is there anything else I need to know?

The short answer is no! There are tons of international students in our organization. Many international students lead the unions on their campuses. Belonging to a union is your right. It is illegal for any domestic or international student to face any consequences for belonging to a union. No one’s visa or student status has ever been affected by their membership in a union. 

What is UE?

We voted to affiliate with a national union, UE, which is democratic and member-run and which has decades of experience representing grad students including at MIT. Just this year, grads at UChicago, Northwestern, and Johns Hopkins had their own card drops to join UE.

When does card signing end?

We don’t know yet! We will file for an election when we have a commanding majority of grads signed on cards. This might take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. The faster we collect cards, the faster we vote in our election and bargain our contract.

When filling out my card, what is my “job title”?

Make your best guess! Many grads are RAs, TAs, or fellows. “Research assistant” is a good catch-all if you’re not sure. We just need your current job title. 

Are there dues associated with signing?

We encourage you to donate to PGSU (https://tinyurl.com/PGSUdonate) to allow our campaign to cover the costs of our organizing. Official union dues start after we ratify our first contract, and will be more than covered by the raise we negotiate in that contract. We all vote on our first contract–we would never vote for a contract that doesn’t give us a raise overall.

The union card says I’m authorizing the union to represent me and on my behalf negotiate now. What does that mean? I thought you said the union is something that will exist in the future?

Right now, we are the union, but we are not officially recognized as the bargaining representative of graduate workers. After winning our union election, grad students like us will elect coworkers who will make up the bargaining committee, who will negotiate with the university to improve our working, learning, and research conditions. The union is made up of graduate students–we will negotiate on our behalf. 

Could my work hours be affected by the union? I’m trying to get out of here as quickly as possible, and I’m worried about limitations.

Our eventual contract proposals will be written by and for us, the graduate workers. We understand our work better than anyone. While we want to put protections in place against people who are forced to work more than they would like, we do not want to make it harder for anyone to work as much as they would like! It is hard to imagine a majority of grads voting for a grad-worker-written contract that makes it harder to graduate. It would be great for you to make your voice heard in bargaining proposals down the line! 

Union Membership

What about union dues?

Dues will not begin until we have ratified our first contract. We will fight for a contract that more than outweighs the cost of dues. Since all grad students vote to ratify the contract, we can be assured we won’t vote for a pay cut! Our national union (UE) has a dues rate of 1.44%. Because UE is a democratic, member-run union where each local has significant autonomy, we will control what resources we would ultimately like our union to provide with our dues.

What is dues money used for?

Dues are used to pay for office space, material support, and dedicated staff whose sole job is to advocate for Princeton graduate students. Dues pay for legal representation to enforce our contract and for graduate students who need it.

Will I have to go on strike?

We all have a right, protected by federal labor law, to work if we want to. No one can make you go on strike. Opponents of unionization don’t want us to know this because they want to scare us into believing that our union can force us to go on strike. Furthermore, strikes are exceedingly rare; 98% percent of contracts are negotiated without the need for striking. No one here at Princeton wants a strike, so it’s very unlikely that would ever happen. PGSU understands that many graduate students who work in labs cannot abandon their research and imperil the progress they’ve made towards completion of their degrees. The decision to take any strike action on Princeton campus would be made through a democratic process, specifically a membership vote in which all PGSU members would be eligible.

Why form a union when we already have Graduate Student Government (GSG)?

The GSG is prohibited by its own constitution from engaging in organizing and collective bargaining. Rather, its role is provide a line of communication between graduate students and administrators. As such, the union and the GSG would be complementary bodies, both working to improve the graduate student experience at Princeton. Many PGSU organizers are current and former GSG representatives and executive board members, and we maintain collegial relationships with the current executive board.

How can a union accommodate students from different departments?

Although the subjects of our research and methodologies that we employ may differ from department to department, our working and living conditions, as well as the issues we face, don’t differ so much at all. We can all benefit from improvements in compensation, healthcare, and housing, and we all need better protections from arbitrary termination, discrimination, and sexual harassment. We accommodate our differences by building a diverse and inclusive union in which every graduate student has a voice.

Will our contract be “one size fits all?”

No! Contract negotiations give us the flexibility to include provisions for graduate students in different disciplines and departments. Our aim would be to set minimum standards across departments—say, a baseline standard for pay, which would not prevent departments from raising pay above the minimum. We want to raise standards, not lower them. Our contract will be ratified by graduate students, and we don’t believe that anyone would accept a contract that imposes obstacles on any of our constituents, or prioritizes the needs of any one group over another.

How will unionization affect my relationship with my Principle Investigator/Advisor?

Two recent, peer-reviewed studies, available here and here, examine the effects of unionization on advisor-student relationships and present a clear answer: “Unionization does not have the presumed negative effect on student outcomes, and in some cases has a positive effect. Union-represented graduate student employees report higher levels of personal and professional support, unionized graduate student employees fare better on pay, and unionized and nonunionized students report similar perceptions of academic freedom.” Ultimately, this makes sense: when our financial support is laid out and guaranteed to us in a contract, our relationships with our advisors can be purely academic.

International Students

Are international students allowed to unionize?

Yes, international workers absolutely have workers’ rights and will be protected by the union against retaliation (one-pager by the NLRB). You can read more specifically about your rights to organize as international workers in the Wilberforce Pamphlet, an official US document which expands upon all of the following bullet points in more detail.

You have the right to:

  • Be paid fairly
  • Be free from discrimination
  • Be free from sexual harassment and sexual exploitation
  • Have a healthy and safe workplace
  • Request help from union, immigrant, and labor rights groups
  • Leave an abusive employment situation

The international grad worker community at Princeton faces unique challenges during the course of their academic career which we believe Princeton must strive to alleviate. International workers deserve freedom from harassment and discrimination as much as domestic students, and we cannot tolerate the gross mistreatment many face. We must create an open and accommodating environment to allow all students to flourish.

Will my union membership affect my student visa? Can it affect future visas?

No. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) cannot ask you questions about your union membership or participation in lawful union activity. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recognized the importance of enforcing labor laws and signed an agreement with the Department of Labor (DOL) stating “Effective enforcement of labor law is essential to ensure proper wages and working conditions for all covered workers regardless of immigration status”. It is your right to belong to a union and being a union member cannot and should not affect your visa application.

Are there any restrictions on my ability to participate in union activities such as picketing, rallies, and leafleting?

Political activities such as picketing, rallies, leafleting, demonstrations, etc., are forms of expression and free association, which are protected for foreigners in the U.S. (including foreign students with visas) as they are for U.S. nationals. It is against the law for your employer (the university) to retaliate against you for participating in these protected activities.

What can the graduate student union do for international students?

Here are some things other unions have been able to win, specifically for international students. This list was drawn from the NMSU union site. You can see our list of other union wins here.

  • Housing for international students. Grad workers at University of Illinois Chicago won guaranteed summer housing for international students.
  • Prevention of discriminatory fees. Grad workers at U of Washington, U of Michigan, and UM Amherst have repealed or prevented the imposition of specific fees for international students. At U of Michigan, they have negotiated that the university reimburse SEVIS fees.
  • Availability of research funding. Grad workers at Columbia University have negotiated the creation of 15 yearly $3000 summer fellowships for internationals.
  • Equal opportunities protections. Grad workers at U of Washington have defeated an ICE directive to deport international students working abroad, and went to court against Pres. Trump’s anti-muslim travel ban.
  • Protections for undocumented workers. Grad workers at U of California have achieved equal access to academic and professional development, including TA positions, for undocumented students and DACA beneficiaries.
  • Transparent grievance procedures. Grad workers at U of Connecticut have established a grievance procedure for international students. They can go through this when they have been unjustly terminated, without fear of deportation.
  • Overwork protections. Grad workers at U of Michigan have negotiated overwork protections, so international students don’t have to violate the terms of their visa.
  • Improved legal resources. U of Michigan grad workers have negotiated the creation of a legal hotline international students can call if they have problems crossing the border.
  • Supplementing International Office services. UM Amherst grad workers have negotiated the creation of a committee to provide support with immigration status, visa issues, and legal issues falling outside the purview of IPO.
Why are international students in unions elsewhere?

Chinese graduate student leaders in UE-, UAW-, and AFT-affiliated unions at schools across the US issued a statement of support for PGSU where they describe why they decided to organize with their union. Read their statement (in Chinese).

Dues FAQs

What are dues?

Dues are contributions essential to building a strong union. Once we have ratified our first contract, we will fight for a raise that will at least cover our dues rate (UE average is 3.3% raise per contract). We’ll vote to approve the raise we’ve negotiated, and can vote to reject the contract if we think we should negotiate for more. Only after approving our contract will we pay dues to the union (from our post-raise paycheck!). The UE minimum dues rate is 1.44%.

Is my union raise canceled out by my dues?

Not at all. In addition to the fact that we’d reject any contract where this was the case, Cornell grads made this cool graph showing how dues become a smaller portion of your monthly paycheck over time as we fight for more raises! In the below example, a yearly raise of 4% with 2% dues will result in greater net pay compared to a 2% raise alone.

Where do dues go?

Our local union maintains ⅓ of all dues and ⅔ go to the national union. This proportion is democratically voted on by all UE members.

The share of dues going to the national union covers lawyers to file unfair labor practice charges, charges with OSHA, etc.; infrastructure like our database; strategy advice, including trainings for organizers and communications help; connections with other grad unions; expertise; training in how to bargain, and a lawyer in the room if we need it for bargaining; and more.

Local dues are completely under our control. We as a local union might vote to hire a staffer to keep our walkthrough infrastructure active, have a lot of social events, create a hardship fund, print a lot of beautiful literature, and more.

UE is unique in that the locals collect all dues before contributing their portion to the national union. In most unions, this is reversed! UE is also unique in giving a local union total autonomy on how to spend the ⅓ of dues that stay with the local.

How is the dues amount decided?

Members run this union. At the National Convention, held every other year, the entire union’s budget is democratically decided. The UE membership has chosen to spend most of our dues on organizing new workplaces. PGSU members will have a meaningful say in this democratic process. As 3,200 members of a ~45,000 member union, our voices are significant!

Importantly, UE has a rule that no UE officer can make more than the highest paid member. And in practice, UE officers make much less than the highest paid members! You can learn more about UE at ueunion.org

Do dues come out of my adviser’s funds?

No, dues do not come out of your adviser’s funds. They come out of the money that we move from central administration, at the bargaining table, into our departments so they can pay us more. At the bargaining table, we are not negotiating with chairs or department heads but with the university as it sets the budget every year. Many advisers are grateful that the union can bargain for this infusion to departments! As a reminder, Princeton has a $35.9 billion endowment and does not need to collect tuition at all to stay solvent. We will encourage Princeton to prioritize grad education over other expenses, like new construction.

Who is Eligible to be in the Union?

Which PhD students would be represented?

All graduate students will have the right and the opportunity to participate in the union. Although the specifics of who would be in the bargaining unit has yet to be determined (see above, What is collective bargaining?), it is our intention to negotiate a contract that benefits all graduate students. Building a cohesive and inclusive community of graduate students means exactly that: making sure that everyone’s voice is heard.

I’m an international student. Am I eligible, and will this affect my visa status?

Anyone can join a union, no matter what your immigration status. International students have been members and organizers of graduate unions across the United States for decades. Student visas include provisions allowing their holders to work for their host institutions; it is why so many international students here at Princeton currently serve as teachers and researchers. Unionization will not affect your visa status at all.

If I’m graduating soon, why should I support unionization?

As a later-year graduate student, you’ve seen first hand some of the problems we face and have important experience and knowledge that can help make Princeton better for all graduate students. Your involvement helps build institutional memory and helps ensure that the next generation of Princeton students has it better than we do.

About PGSU

How is PGSU run?

PGSU is run by Princeton graduate students. We make the decisions and determine our priorities. Discussions and decisions are made at our weekly organizing committee meetings, which are open to all members. Our leadership is totally volunteer-based, so everyone can participate! Click here if you’d like to sign a union card, become a member, and get involved!

What are bylaws?

Bylaws are a set of policies that determine how a union is governed. Once our union is recognized, we will create a volunteer-based committee of graduate students to determine our bylaws, which would then be ratified by all members of the union. These bylaws could be modified at any time through a democratic process.

How is PGSU organizing?

We believe that the only way to build a cohesive and representative community of graduate students is by having one-on-one conversations with every single graduate student on Princeton campus. This is important because we’re here to listen; we want to know why you want a union and what you would want that union to fight for. If you haven’t yet had the chance to have a one-on-one conversation with a PGSU organizer, please reach out to us at AskPGSU@gmail.com. We’d love to hear what you have to say.