Why would we be forming a union?

As graduate workers, we do a large amount of the teaching, grading, research, and administrative work at our universities. Through collective bargaining, we can (1) have a voice in decisions at our universities that affect our employment and our ability to help make them great educational institutions; (2) ensure livable wages, adequate benefits, clear workload expectations, resources for professional development, and transparent employment policies; (3) join a community of tens of thousands of graduate workers, postdoctoral researchers, adjuncts, and part-time faculty working across the country; and (4) have the power to negotiate with the administration as equals to fight for the benefits we need, shape conversations about our universities future, and ensure our contribution to the community is respected and properly compensated.

Why are graduate employees organizing across the country?

Because we keep our universities going by teaching and conducting research, but have little say over the working conditions that affect our studies and our futures. Graduate student workers want to have a stronger, more unified voice on campus. Like many non-tenure-track faculty across the country, we want to improve our pay, benefits and workload, which can be difficult to address with our supervisors directly. Coming together to form a union is a great way to create more equitable employment conditions. This is the ultimate goal of a graduate student worker union or organization, and this new stability inevitably enhances the quality of our academic lives and our students’ educational experiences. The saying that goes for faculty goes doubly for graduate student employees: our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.

Are graduate students really workers?

We are students and workers at the same time. When we teach undergraduates, conduct research, support faculty, and advise thesis writers, we perform the revenue- and prestige-generating labor that makes our universities work. In order to be paid, we must perform services under terms dictated by our advisors, departments, and university administrators. The National Labor Review Board ruled in August 2016 that graduate students are employees under the National Labor Relations Act which gives us the right to bargain collectively over the terms and conditions of our employment.

How does a union give us a voice?

We will make all of the decisions for our own union and democratically determine our priorities and leaders. All members can shape our priorities by serving on committees, through formal bargaining surveys, informal input, and by participating in the bargaining process itself. All contract proposals come from us. During the process of collective bargaining, we will decide if a proposed contract is good enough to be ratified by majority vote.

With a union, would all departments have to follow the same policies?

Our contract can be as detailed as we want it to be. If something is working well in your department, there’s no need to change it. Second, if a certain policy would be help teaching fellows but don’t make sense for research assistants, we don’t need to apply it to RAs. We believe that graduate workers themselves know best whether a given policy is good or bad for them; that’s why we believe we should have the right to negotiate with the administration about these policies.

Why should we organize as a union?

You may be happy with your working conditions right now. But because we don’t have a contract, the administration could change the policies that affect you at any time, without consulting you, and without giving you any recourse. Without a contract, limitations on funding for graduate students are often unclear or may change from year to year. With a union, we get to negotiate a contract that would protect the benefits we like and secure improvements in other areas. Because we select our priorities and vote democratically on our contract, having a union means that we get to decide.

Does unionization create an adversarial relationship?

No. That has not been the case for other academic unions. In the many years during which graduate workers on 60+ campuses across the country have been unionized, there’s been no real evidence that collective bargaining has a negative impact on relationships between students and their advisors. Peer-reviewed studies concur. By giving graduate workers real power to deal with the administration when they have problems or grievances, having a union would allow advisors to focus on teaching and mentoring their graduate students rather than on dealing with administrative crises. Furthermore, by giving graduate student workers a voice in our universities' policy making processes, a union can help us join the in fighting to ensure the university prioritizes teaching and research. Academic success is a priority for every graduate student, and we can make sure to negotiate a contract that reflects our priorities.

What protection do I have if I get involved?

Under federal law, it’s illegal for an employer to retaliate against anyone who is known to be involved in union organizing. It therefore follows that protection against retaliation increases when you are public about your support for our union. Needless to say, the more of us who are involved, the less likely it is that the administration would attempt any sort of action — multiple dismissals would be clear evidence of illegal retaliation, and individual dismissals will be ineffective and almost certain to raise the specter of retaliation, something that management will be keen to avoid. Note that “going public” doesn’t require one to assume a high profile — you could attend meetings of the organizing committee, sign a letter, or simply speak to several colleagues (even your chair).

How is a union different from other graduate student and governance organizations that already exist?

These organizations represent and support graduate students as students: they fund student groups, award grants, sponsor events, and communicate student concerns to university administrators. However, they are not labor organizations: they have no power to negotiate a binding contract on behalf of graduate student workers, and the administration is under no obligation to act on any recommendations or requests they might make. The union can serve as support for these graduate organizations by negotiating stable funding for new and continuing graduate organization initiatives, such as conference travel grants and professional development events.

What is “Graduate Workers Forward” and SEIU Local 509?

Since its start in 2013, graduate students have played an instrumental role as allies in the Faculty Forward movement. Through Faculty Forward, over 13,000 faculty have formed unions and joined allies to challenge the status quo in higher education around working conditions, student debt, and access to higher education. Faculty Forward is a project of the Service Employees International Union, (SEIU), which represents 120,000 members in public and private higher education in the United States—40,000 of which are college and university faculty. SEIU Local 509

With the recent ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB: the federal body that governs collective bargaining in the private sector), graduate student assistants at private institutions can now join the many graduate student employees at public universities who have formed unions. Graduate assistants at Duke, Northwestern, Saint Louis University, American University and other major universities are organizing with SEIU under the campaign heading “Grad Workers Forward.”

If paid through an external grant, am I covered by the union? Is it possible to negotiate my compensation?

Yes. A number of NYU’s students on external grants are covered by the union, and Columbia’s graduate union petition before the NLRB argues that grant-funded graduate workers should be included in their bargaining unit. Moreover, UMass, University of Washington graduate workers, and University of California postdoctoral workers have already collectively negotiated annual increases in their grant-funded compensation through collective bargaining.

What have other graduate workers won through collective bargaining?

  • Contractually guaranteed, annual, across-the-board stipend increases and timely payments.
  • Enhanced dental, vision, and mental health insurance (including lower co-pays for services and prescriptions).
  • Improved family benefits, such as dependent health coverage, child-care subsidies and paid maternity leave.
  • Workload protections that enhance the quality of research and education.
  • Vacation and sick leave for research assistants.
  • Subsidized public transportation services.
  • Protections against discriminatory practices, sexual harassment and assault.
  • Improved disability access and resources for people of color.
  • A fair and transparent grievance procedure.

As an international student on a student visa, am I legally allowed to organize?

Yes. International graduate student workers have the same legal rights to join a union as US citizens.

How much will dues be?

Dues for members in Massachusetts are 1.5 percent of our individual gross salary. But, more importantly, no one will pay dues until we have: (1) formed our union; (2) negotiated our first contract; and (3) voted as a group to approve that contract. In other words, no one will pay dues to our union until we know exactly what gains we’ve achieved through collective bargaining. We decide when we have an agreement that is worth our dues money.

How long will this take?

An election typically takes four to eight weeks after a sufficient number of Union Authorization Cards are filed with the National Labor Relations Board. Our goal is to build to majority support, and we are well on our way to achieving that goal. In an election, a union will be certified if more eligible members vote “yes” than vote “no.”

Once we form our union, the collective bargaining process begins. Bargaining is where a committee of graduate student employees sit down as equals with a committee representing the university administration and negotiate a contract that addresses working conditions, compensation, etc.. The length of time negotiations take can vary, but typically they last at least 6 months.

If another union goes on strike, will we have to also?

No. Each worker within or without the union system has the right to choose whether they want to participate to a strike or protest of any kind. Although it rarely becomes necessary, striking is an important and powerful last resort when an employer persistently refuses to negotiate in good faith. When other options for bringing an employer to the bargaining table have been exhausted, we can decide, by voting, if a strike is necessary. While a strike is most effective if we all stand together, it is up to individuals to decide whether they will participate in a strike.

Next Steps...

Join a nationwide movement of faculty and graduate student workers fighting for better pay and benefits and a voice on campuses across Massachusetts. To get started, fill out this confidential union authorization form today.