Memo: A Union for Health & Safety

PGSU sent the following email out to Princeton graduate students on March 24, 2023.

Dear fellow Princeton graduate worker,

A majority of Princeton grads have joined a movement that is creating new standards for graduate research. Just last week, MIT grad workers shared the exciting update that they successfully bargained for historic improvements and guaranteed rights around workplace health and safety. Join our union today!

Achieving better health and safety protections will allow us to focus on doing the research we came to graduate school to do. Together, we can secure

  • Access to worker’s compensation for all grads, regardless of their funding source, in cases of injury (Harvard);
  • Sufficient training, during normal work hours, for expected work duties and career advancement (Michigan, Harvard);
  • Guaranteed PPE, equipment, facilities, and infrastructure (Harvard); as well as sufficient office space, conference rooms, tools, and supplies, including coursebooks for both on-campus and remote work (Michigan);
  • Regular and binding workplace/laboratory safety evaluations by a team of experts and/or a jointly composed safety committee that addresses workplace health and safety concerns on a regular basis, including concerns regarding mental health and racial injustice (Harvard); and/or paid safety officer positions (Michigan);
  • Reporting mechanisms for unsafe working conditions that protect against retaliation (Harvard);
  • Funding extensions in case research is delayed due to workplace health and safety issues (Brown); transitional funding for change of academic advisers (Columbia);
  • Protocols for first aid and initial actions when graduate workers are injured or hurt in the lab (MIT’s bargaining proposal);
  • Clear communication of work hours expectations and late night work policies; including protected and anonymous reporting mechanisms (Michigan);
  • Protected work standards for international students so they don’t violate the terms of their visa (Michigan).

We know that we at Princeton need such improvements, too. 

  • There have been numerous instances in the past years at Princeton when our workplace posed a safety hazard, e.g., due to explosions (2012), hazardous spills (2015), fires (2018). These reported instances and anecdotes are just a few among a great number of unreported incidents. 
  • “Safety officer” roles are usually assigned to graduate workers as an unpaid addition to their research duties.
  • Grad workers have no protected recourse in case of health or safety concerns, e.g., when labs continued to run late into the night and PIs weakened COVID safety protocols as early as fall 2020. 
  • The current process of compensation in the event of an injury is opaque, spotty, and insufficient. Since workers’ comp is only available for injuries sustained “within the scope of employment,” grads must struggle on their own with a system that arbitrarily distinguishes student status and worker status at its own convenience.
  • Grad workers have no guaranteed contingency funding, transitional funding, or funding extensions for research delayed due to health and safety issues. In contrast to unionized workplaces like Brown, Princeton continues to refuse centralized funding for all those whose work was impacted by the pandemic, despite its endowment growing by over $11 billion in FY 2021.
  • Workplace equipment provisions are limited and poorly enforced across engineering, humanities, natural science, and social social science  departments.

Issues surrounding the question:  “Who pays when a graduate student gets hurt?” (see also here) emerge as the byproduct of an artificial separation between our status as students and as employees. Through a union, we can win adequate protections for all. Join more than 1,700 grad workers at Princeton and sign your union card today!