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?

According to the National Labor Relations Board (see page 20), there are three categories of issues with regards to collective bargaining. Mandatory issues, such as wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment must be bargained over. Illegal issues would be those that would contravene state, local, or federal laws. 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.

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.

Union Membership

What about union dues?

The overall due structure for Princeton graduate students will be decided by Princeton graduate students during the contract negotiations stage – that means we decide how much we contribute in dues and what resources we would like our union to provide. No one pays dues until a contract is in place and ratified by the graduate student body. Typically, dues are 1-2% of compensation, but again, this would be up to us. PGSU will fight for a contract in which the benefits we win far outweigh what we contribute in 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.

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 does the collective bargaining process look like?), 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 funded by an external grant, am I eligible?

Yes! The Columbia NLRB decision that gave us the right to unionize explicitly states (page 2) that students funded through external grants are eligible for union representation.

Are Masters students eligible?

If you teach, perform research, or are otherwise employed by the university, you may be eligible for union representation. It is our intention to build a broad and diverse bargaining unit, and when it comes time to negotiate the particulars of that unit (see above, What does the collective bargaining process look like?), we will insist on the inclusion of masters students who teach or perform research.

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 our mission statement 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.