Frequently Asked Questions

Note (June 16, 2020): This FAQ was prepared in Fall 2018 and is currently being updated to reflect the contemporary state of our union. Thank you for your patience, and please email standupforgrads [at] gmail [dot] com with any questions!

Office hours at the Rock!


What is SUGSE?



Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees (SUGSE) is a grassroots organization of graduate-student workers at Brown University. SUGSE was founded in 2014 to advocate for graduate-student workers; SUGSE’s accomplishments include fighting to save sixth-year funding, winning dental insurance for all graduate-student workers, and ratifying the first collective bargaining agreement for graduate-student workers at an Ivy League university. Our hundreds of members come from departments and schools within the university. We are affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals (RIFTHP).


Who runs the union?



We do! SUGSE was founded and is run by graduate-student workers, and it’s graduate-student workers who will run the day-to-day operations of our union. The foundation of our organization is learning about each other, thinking about what we could achieve together in a union, and taking action to build collective power to achieve our goals. We will work together to listen to each other and think creatively about shared goals and how we can collectively achieve them. Any member is eligible to take on leadership positions and there are a variety of roles our members can play once we win our election.

In the spring of 2017, after a referendum, we decided to join the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a national union with a reputation for respecting the independence of its locals, which reflects the extent to which our members value SUGSE’s autonomy. The AFT will support our efforts to advocate for graduate-student workers by sharing key resources, including legal counsel and organizing assistance.


What does a campaign for union recognition entail?



A union-recognition campaign is an opportunity for graduate-student workers to raise our voices together to assert that we should have a say in the decisions that shape our living and working conditions. We want a seat at the table. In signing an election agreement with graduate-student workers, Brown’s administration has affirmed our right to take part in this decision if a majority of students vote “yes” in a union election. That is why SUGSE members will have conversations with every graduate-student worker at Brown to make sure that we fully exercise our right to have a say in our working conditions. Through conversations, we learn about and further develop shared aspirations to better support our work as researchers and teachers across diverse departments, perspectives, and experiences.

Under the terms of our agreement, which you can read here, when SUGSE demonstrates that a plurality of graduate-student workers support building a union together, we filed for an election to be carried out by the American Arbitration Association (AAA) in Fall 2018. A majority of graduate-student workers voted #UnionYes in our election, leading Brown University to recognize our union and and to begin bargaining with us in good faith, according to the terms of our election agreement.


Who is eligible to vote in an election for union recognition?



According to the terms of our election agreement with the university:

Eligible voters will be all Brown Ph.D. and Masters students enrolled in the Graduate School who are engaged in research or instructional services as duly appointed Teaching Assistants, Research Assistants and Proctors […] during the semester in which the election is held (Fall 2018) or who performed such services in one of the two semesters (Fall 2017 and Spring 2018) immediately preceding the semester in which the election takes place.

If you have any questions about whether you are eligible to vote, please get in touch with SUGSE at Even if you are not eligible to vote in the election, you are still welcome to join the union as a member and you will likely be covered by the same contract.* We aim to represent the broadest number of grads and we’re committed to fighting for high standards for all of us—not just the people who the administration determines are eligible to vote.

*We say “likely” because although most if not all administrations bargaining with graduate-student unions have respected the terms of the union-bargained contract for graduate-students who are not employed by the university (e.g. graduate students who are on fellowship). Since this is an issue a lot folks are concerned about, however, we look forward to collaborating with all graduate-student workers to make sure all of us are treated with fairness and equality.


What happens after we win?



We celebrate! Then we get down to business. After the AAA certifies the result of our election, we will charter our union with the AFT and Brown will officially recognize SUGSE as the sole collective bargaining agent for graduate-student workers at Brown. Then we will develop our governing structure and bodies. We will write, and then and vote on, our constitution and by-laws and we will establish our executive board, our negotiating committee, and a representative structure to ensure that all departments and programs are represented. We will also survey all of our members about their bargaining priorities and the bargaining committee will develop proposals that we will present to management during negotiations. After we reach a tentative agreement through negotiations that the negotiating committee can recommend to the membership, we will bring the tentative agreement to the whole membership to vote to approve or return to the bargaining table to come back with a better agreement. If the membership ratifies the contract, it will begin to take effect immediately and members will begin to pay dues.


Who represents us in the bargaining committee?



We do. We want our bargaining committee to consist of members from every program and department to make sure all voices are represented. We will have legal assistance from the AFT, but we develop our proposals and we sit at the negotiating table.


What universities have graduate employee unions?



Graduate workers at dozens of state universities, from the University of California system to Rutgers, have long had successful grad unions, and our colleagues at private universities like New York University and Tufts University have recently joined them in this endeavor. For more on graduate-worker unionization see our page on unions across the US as well as our timeline on the history of unionization at private universities.


How is SUGSE different from other graduate student groups on campus?



SUGSE is one among many graduate-student-led groups working toward improving the place where we work, learn, and live by bringing together and amplifying the voices of graduate students. What makes SUGSE unique as our union is its independence from Brown’s administration and, should we win our election, its unique capacity, protected by U.S. labor law, to be our representative in bargaining for our contract.

Among other important student groups at Brown are interest- and identity-based groups like Nabrit and Graduate Women in Science and Engineering. There is also the Graduate Student Council (GSC), which meets on a monthly basis, serving in an advisory capacity to administrators and tasked with the distribution of funds for social and academic life on campus. The GSC can serve an important function in advocating for student needs on campus. SUGSE was founded to meet the need for an independent voice for graduate students funded independently and organized from the administration. Many members of SUGSE are active in GSC advisory groups, and SUGSE has collaborated with the GSC in the past. Yet experience has shown us the need for an autonomous, self-governing body to represent our interests as university employees, and to advocate for higher wages and access to the resources we need to thrive as scholars.


As an international student, how would a union benefit me?


Joining a union can be beneficial to international graduate students for several reasons. First, our union can provide a voice and advocacy for international graduate students who don’t always know the U.S. university system. Second, our union can help ensure that departmental hiring practices are clear, open, and fair so that international graduate students don’t miss out on work opportunities. Third, since U.S. law prohibits international students from being paid for more than 20 hours per week, our union can play a key role in ensuring a minimum stipend that guarantees a decent living standard. Fourth, better and more affordable benefits, a fair and enforceable grievance procedure, higher wages, a voice in our working conditions, and respect as employees are things all grads and their families deserve.


What is collective bargaining?



Collective bargaining is a process that equalizes the power relationship between employees and their employer. Under collective bargaining, we would elect representatives to negotiate on equal footing with Brown and put the terms of our employment into a binding contract, on which every union member will vote in order for it to take effect. With collective bargaining, graduate employees can negotiate for improvements in wages, hours, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment. Without collective bargaining, Brown has the power to change our conditions or decide whether or not to make improvements without being held accountable to the people who are directly affected by these changes: graduate student workers.

Graduate-student workers at NYU recently negotiated a new contract with the University in which they won significant pay increases, free dental insurance, and childcare fund. They were able to win voluntary recognition because they had strong graduate support and continued to take action to make the University respect their decision to form a union.


Is there a chance that unionizing will lower some students’ stipends to match that of other departments?



No. A contract sets salary floors, not ceilings, and departments can and do pay above any minimum salary established in the collective bargaining agreement (see the contracts at UWashington or NYU). SUGSE has no desire to lower anyone’s pay in order to equalize salaries across the university. In fact, many contracts have a ‘Maintenance of Benefits’ clause, which states that no graduate employee will earn less in pay or benefits under the contract than they did before. Typically, percentage increases in the contract will apply even if you earn above the wage floor. The university already faces competition from other top research institutions in attracting students in certain fields; the upward pressure on stipends in certain fields will only be strengthened with the power of collective bargaining.


Would a union change what is unique about each department?



SUGSE’s goal is to promote graduate-student flourishing at Brown by making sure our needs our met. In setting baseline standards and expectations, we in no way interfere with the autonomy each department has to meet these standards. Further, many important workplace issues—like parental leave, dental and vision insurance, grievance policies, and workers’ compensation—simply can’t be resolved at the department level. Still, it is precisely because of the diversity of experiences that graduate-student workers have at Brown that we talk to everyone and have folks involved from every field. A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work; we’re building this union from the ground up, so this is an ideal time to get involved in shaping it. (Source: Cornell Grad Union FAQ)


Funding for my research assistantship comes from a grant, so how could we negotiate over that?



Currently, the Brown determines RA pay rates unilaterally, and those rates – as well as projected increases – are factored into grant proposals to agencies like NIH, NSF, DOD, etc. With collective bargaining, we would negotiate as equals with the Brown for improvements to our pay rates. RAs at UMASS, the University of Washington, and NYU as well as postdocs at the University of California, have negotiated guaranteed annual increases to their pay rates through collective bargaining. (Source: Columbia Grad Union FAQ.)


Note: This FAQ was prepared with inspiration from GSU’s FAQ