Grad Student Unionization #SUGSE Facts

SUGSE compiled this FAQ based on a list distributed to our peers organizing at University of Chicago. The Provost’s Office at Brown recently released a very similar list. Please use the list below to get SUGSE’s take on #adminfacts and what a union can do for graduate student employees. We will be updating this list with more information so be on on the look out!

Q: What is a union?

A: A union is a group of workers who, through organized collective power, have a voice in shaping their work conditions. Unions are one way that workers can formally express and work towards achieving their vision of an equitable, fair, and respectful workplace. A union is only as strong and powerful as its members—collective power and effective organizing is what wins a meaningful seat at the table. For example, in spring 2015, SUGSE won dental insurance for all PhDs through an effective, multi-month campaign. Our collective power, rather than official representation through a union, won increased benefits for grads. An official contract would ensure that improvements to our working conditions, like dental, are protected in the future, but it must be part of—rather than a substitute for—collective grad power.

Q: What would a union do for me as a graduate student?

A: A union would  give graduate students  meaningful control over the terms of their working conditions. Currently, graduate students have no real power over their stipend benefits number of hours required each week grievance mechanisms for addressing discrimination or leave policies such as family leave. The administration can change our packages at any point without any negotiation or even notice to grad students. As we have seen over the years this makes it incredibly difficult to  compel the administration to listen to our real concerns much less meaningfully address them. It also makes us vulnerable to changes that benefit the University more than they benefit graduate students. For example, in the summer of 2013 then graduate school dean Peter Weber unilaterally placed a cap on the number of hours graduate students could work at on-campus jobs, asserting that this was in our best interest because it insured that we would dedicate all of our time to finishing our dissertations as soon as possible. While we hope and trust that Dean Campbell will take the many issues that define our lives while pursuing graduate work seriously, trust and hope will not  guarantee better working conditions for graduate students. Through a union graduate students will be able to meaningfully negotiate the terms of their employment with the administration as equals and the University will be compelled by law to respond to our terms.

Q: What would a union prevent me from doing?

A: This is a question the administration might ask to make it seem like a union will limit your autonomy as a graduate student. In fact, union representation gives graduate students more of a say and greater control over their working conditions. Remember, a union is only as strong as its members—graduate students would not be negotiating with the union, they would be negotiating with the administration about their working conditions. A better question might be: What would a union prevent the University from doing? In the broadest sense, the answer is that it would prevent the University from making changes to our stipends, benefits, and work requirements as they please. Upon successful negotiation of a contract between the union and the University, the University would have to follow the terms of the contract. This would “prevent” the University from putting its own interests before the interests of graduate students.

Q: If graduate research assistants in the sciences are included in the bargaining unit, could their hours be capped?

A: We sure hope so. Having a clear and enforceable cap on the hours we have to work is a key item of negotiation between the union and the administration. We know that students in the sciences are especially in need of reasonable and transparent working hours, regardless of their funding source. Just because you are being funded by your advisers’ grant does not mean they should have complete control and power over your work life. Given how many students in the sciences are expected to TA even when their external grant prohibits this doubling up of labor, SUGSE is committed to including science students in the bargaining unit in order to bring the 8 hour work day to the lab.

Q: If there were a union, could graduate students sit on departmental or school committees?

A: Of course. Unions cannot possibly replace all of the University work that happens on committees and within organizations such as the Graduate Student Council (GSC). A graduate student union would work closely with these committees and especially the GSC on graduate work related issues.

Q: How could a union impact the grievance process?

A: At Brown, a graduate student union would mean that graduate students, for the first time, would have an actual mechanism with which to formally address their grievance. Currently, graduate student concerns are most likely to end up at various administrators’ desks whose respective responses seems to depend more on personality than any formalized process. More often than not, concerns are met with a sympathetic conversation that does little to change the facts of the situation. The administration also tends to tell graduate students that they need to take up their issue with faculty, and that they are powerless to “make faculty change.”

A union would change all of this. It would formalize work protections and expectations for all involved, making what are currently treated as individual issues contract items that all parties have agreed to follow. If someone violated the terms of the contract, graduate students would be able to initiate a grievance in accordance with the grievance and arbitration process outlined in the contract. They would do so in conjunction with Union representatives to ensure that all parties are complying with the process. Any violation of the contract can be remedied through this grievance process. That is why it is so important to develop a robust contract that speaks to the many issues that impact our working conditions.

Q: Can a union bargain over student fees?

A: Yes.

Q: 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?

A: Ideally, a union will ensure that off-site research activities will be accounted for and compensated by the University. Rather than applying to one-off conference grants through your department and the graduate school, a contract could stipulate that these activities are A) considered part of your job as a graduate student employee and B) must be reimbursed at a certain rate by the University. For example, graduate students at NYU are now entitled to the research and travel terms provided to faculty.

Q: If I am a graduate student but not included in the bargaining unit, how will a union impact my graduate student experience?

A: We hope that as working conditions improve for graduate students represented by a union, they will also improve for graduate students who are not unionized. If we successfully negotiate a contract, the terms of that contract will necessarily raise the bar for what the University has to provide its workers. We are are hopeful that this raises expectations for equitable treatment for all workers at the University.

Q: Many state Universities have unions. Wouldn’t it just be the same here?

A: In a word, yes. Graduate students at public and private universities perform the same types of labor. Because of this, graduate students at both types of institutions need and benefit from formal labor protections and agreed upon terms of employment. Administrations at private universities might argue that our roles are different because students at public universities may do more teaching and researching to fund their way through their PhDs. This is a false–and elitist–distinction that appeals to the benevolence of private administrations in order to convince us that we A) perform little or no academic labor for the University and B) do not need formal work conditions as a result.

Q: At institutions where graduate students are unionized, what have been the positive statements and complaints expressed about the existing union?

A: Graduate students at NYU recently won formal recognition from the University and successfully negotiated a contract. They are entitled to a set salary with a 2.5% pay raise each year, a set wage for any work performed in addition to their teaching or research, health and dental benefits, child care funds, paid vacation time, non-discrimination, grievance procedures, and paid work-related expenses that are the same as the faculty rate. While university administrations may try to say that the verdict is still out on whether or not graduate student unions are good for graduate education, we think this list of formalized work expectations and protections speaks for itself. We also know that transparency around work expectations provided by a contract greatly de-personalizes and de-romanticizes academic labor. We think this is good for graduate students AND faculty so that there is no chance for misunderstanding, abuse of power, or manipulation around graduate student labor. When everyone is clear on what the university and the union have agreed to, we get a lot of clarity about the fact that academic labor is labor (not just a pursuit of the mind and heart) and that there are processes in place to ensure that work gets done fairly and equitably.

Q: What are the alternatives to unionizing?

A: We have experienced one alternative to unionizing for a number years, and that is being subject to the political agendas and economic incentives of the University regardless of whether they are in our best interests or not. SUGSE believes that only a union fueled by collective graduate student power can make Brown a more equitable, respectful, and fulfilling place to work. It will provide transparency around decision-making that currently does not exist, and provide a mechanism for accountability that right now exists only through bursts of courageous student protest. We need a sustainable model of meaningful representation that can meet our demands and needs so that we can make it through our PhD programs successfully, and with our humanity in tact.

Q: How is the union chosen? Who decides which union will represent graduate students?

A: The workers organizing generally choose an established union to affiliate with, but workers can also start their own unions. Graduate students at private universities have affiliated with the United Auto Workers, the American Federation of Teachers, and Unite Here!. Graduate students at Brown are still deciding who to affiliate with. Ultimately, all graduate students at Brown have a say in whether or not to establish a union with a local or national chapter because forming a union requires a vote.

Q: What are authorization cards? How are they used in the unionization process?

A: Authorization cards or “union cards” are cards you can sign to declare your support during a union drive. They typically represent your intent to vote yes on unionizing in an official election. Union cards help organizers gauge support for unionization, but, they also allow you to become a member before the official vote. Your signature on a SUGSE card makes you a member of SUGSE.

Q: How do unions obtain the right to represent employees?

A: Once there are enough signed union cards to represent significant interest in forming a union, the union can file a “representation petition” with the nearest National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Regional Office. This can happen when at least 30% of employees have indicated support for unionization. The NLRB will then arrange a secret ballot election. If the union receives a majority of votes (50 percent plus one vote), it is certified as the workers’ bargaining representative. The employer must recognize the union as the exclusive bargaining agent for all workers in the bargaining unit.

Q: If there is an election, when will it be held?

A: Typically, elections are held on the earliest practicable date after a NLRB Director’s order or authorization. (For more information visit:

Q: What is the election process?

A: Once a representation petition is filed, the employer is required to post a Notice of Petition for Election in “conspicuous places, including through electronic means if this is how the employer typically communicates with employees. NLRB agents will coordinate between the employer, union, and other relevant parties in setting the date, time, and place for balloting, the ballot language(s), the appropriate unit, and a method to determine who is eligible to vote. Observers from all parties may choose to be present when ballots are counted. (For more information visit:

Q: Can an election ever be postponed?

A: An election may be postponed if a party requests to block the petition based on charges alleging conduct that would interfere with employee free choice in the election, such as threatening loss of jobs or benefits by an employer or a union, granting promotions, pay raises, or other benefits to influence the vote. (For more information visit:

Q: Who should vote?

A: Every member of the specified bargaining unit should vote.

Q: Will students have access to a draft of the proposed contract or a list of provisions that would be negotiated prior to a vote on unionization?

A: A contract can only be negotiated after an election is won. However, member participation is integral to determining what gets included in a contract. It is important that graduate students start discussing potential contract items in the lead up to the election so that the contract reflects our workplace priorities.

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

A: Every graduate student included in the bargaining unit will become a member of the union if there is a “yes” vote.

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

A: Yes. A petition for a new election can be filed after one year.

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

A: Yes. Just like workers can petition to elect union representation, they can petition to decertify and a decertification election will be held. A petition of decertification can be filed after a contract expires or if the contract has been in effect for three or more years. (For more information visit:

Q: Who will be in a union at Brown?

A: SUGSE will determine the bargaining unit once it affiliates with a local or national union. Members of a bargaining unit must have enough in common that they are deemed to share a “community of interest.” SUGSE is committed to creating a bargaining unit that represents as many graduate students as possible.

Q: Would status as an international graduate student impact eligibility to be included in the union?

A: No. International graduate students can participate in all union-related activities, including organizing and membership.



2 thoughts on “Grad Student Unionization #SUGSE Facts

  1. Will point #19: “What is the dues structure for union representation?” be addressed?

    “According to the NYU graduate union website, dues are 2% of total compensation (which includes wages from union work and NYU funding package) during the semesters in which a graduate assistant is employed in a union position, and dues are deducted from every paycheck.”

    2% of a graduate student’s entire funding package is not a negligible amount. A typical graduate student package at Brown includes close to $50,000 just for tuition and fees before including a graduate stipend. Adding in a $20,000 stipend and assuming dues are only 2%, union dues could cost a graduate student $1400/year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Concerned Grad Student!

      This is a great and important question. There are two points to keep in mind:
      (1) Dues from our peer institutions are calculated to be about 2% of gross income–what we see in our paycheck before taxes. You can take a look to see that NYU’s contract does indeed ensure this (tuition is not included – Article IV, Section F). Moreover, it would be insane for a union to have members pay for non-wage “compensation” that they never actually see or have control over.
      (2) As with many things about a union, it is up to the members to decide. Yes, a union will need money to effectively advocate for its members and that requires paying dues. But the exact amount depends on the details of the union that graduate students collectively decide upon. The numbers cited in the administration’s FAQ deliberately obfuscate and misrepresent the financial burden of a union on its members. Many other unions have different dues systems, and we need to find one that makes the most sense for us and our circumstances.

      In Solidarity,


      Liked by 1 person

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