Why Unionize, and How? (FAQs before GLO)


What is the difference between a student and a worker?

SUGSE believes that being a student and a worker are not incompatible. When TAs, RAs, and proctors teach seminars, lead discussion sections, and work in labs, we perform the revenue-generating labor that makes Brown a top-ranked institution. Furthermore, we are paid contingent on performing services under constraints dictated by our departments and/or the University. We believe that our position within the institution makes us employees under the National Labor Relations Act, and thus gives us the right to bargain collectively over the conditions under which we perform this work. This is equally true of “apprentices” (the language preferred by Brown administration), who learn while working but have the right to unionize under the terms of the NLRA.

Why should graduate students be considered workers?

We provide critical services to Brown’s research and teaching missions. Without us, the University would not be able to function. As such, we deserve an equal voice with the University about the terms under which we provide those services.

Are externally funded graduate students also workers?

Even graduate students who are externally funded are “workers” because they effectively must “pay their way out of” performing these services; without external funding, they are automatically subject to the above arrangement by default.

What are the rights of international students to participate in the union?

Because they have the same legal right to join a union as US citizens, international graduate student workers have played a central role in organizing and running unions at more than 60 university campuses across the US. Receiving your visa through the university in no way compromises your right to belong to a union that represents you in a US workplace. For more information, see our FAQ page for international students.


Why form a union?

A union is an organized group of workers who come together to make collective decisions about their working conditions. The union offers a voice to graduate students that has been presently absent, allowing them to have a say in determining livable wages, adequate benefits, clear workload expectations, consistent and transparent employment policies. By formalizing our voice in a separate entity from the university, we can secure our ability to negotiate these terms without relying on the goodwill of the administration by institutionalizing our collective bargaining power. This provides accountability and transparency in an inclusive decision-making process for the graduate and Brown community.

Can graduate workers form unions?

Yes! We always have the right to organize to improve our working conditions. More recently though, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that RAs and TAs are entitled to collective bargaining under the NLRA.

Both before and after the ruling, graduate student workers have been organizing unions. Graduate employees at NYU, Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, Yale and the University of Chicago have formed unions. At New York University, administrators voluntarily recognized the grad workers’ union and have negotiated and ratified a contract. After nearly thirty years, Yale administrators continually refused to recognize the grad workers’ union, Graduate Employees and Students Organization, Local 33, but the collective power of GESO—and the pressure its members put on Yale administrators—have significantly improved the workplace conditions there.

In contrast to private universities, graduate workers at public universities are covered by state labor laws, many of which have recognized collective bargaining rights for decades. We would be joining graduate workers at more than 60 campuses nationwide who already have recognized unions and engage in collective bargaining. This includes New York University, SUNY, CUNY, the University of Connecticut, the University of Massachusetts, Rutgers University, the University of California, the University of Oregon, Oregon State University, the University of Washington, and the University of Michigan, as well as many others.

How do we form a Union?

There are two basic ways: through voluntary recognition by Brown; or by certification through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Under either scenario, building and maintaining strong majority support among graduate student workers will drive the success of our campaign.

How will a union differ from the Graduate Student Council?

The Graduate Student Council is a confederation of representatives from each department that is headed by an annually elected executive board, which meets once a month and provides a forum for graduate students to discuss issues. It also coordinates graduate social events, provides funding for travel, and organizes graduate student committees that interact with administration. Officially, the GSC remains neutral on the issue of graduate student labor, but collaborates closely with graduate student groups like SUGSE to advocate for improved graduate working conditions. Additionally, unlike a union, the GSC does not negotiate contracts with the university.

How are the terms of graduate students’ working conditions currently determined and accounted for?

Right now, working conditions rely entirely on the “good will” of the administration and their departments. However, because of the constantly changing makeup of the faculty and administration, graduate students cannot reasonably expect effective advocates to be in power for long periods of time. Under the current system: (1) there is no formal mechanism for graduate students to give input on policies prior to decisions that affect them, (2) the administration is not required to transparently report decisions as they are being made, and (3) there are no avenues for graduate feedback or recourse in the case of problematic policies. A union will give us collective bargaining power to be able to effectively advocate for graduate student labor rights.

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. 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.

How can we benefit from collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining gives us the power to negotiate with Brown and allows us—not the administration or the corporation—to decide what issues to prioritize in negotiations.

For example, in exchange for withdrawing a petition before the NLRB, graduates at New York University, a private institution, received voluntary recognition of their union from the NYU administration. In their December 2013 vote, 98.4% of NYU graduates’ ballots cast were in favor of a union. Although the University was not required by law to recognize the union and negotiate a contract, the administration chose to do so.

Grads at NYU recently negotiated a new contract with the University in which they won significant pay increases (when teaching for an academic year, a graduate worker now makes around $27,000 per year), free dental insurance, and childcare fund starting at $60,000. 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.


What is the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and what is the NLRB process?

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is an independent agency of the United States government charged with conducting elections for labor union representation and with investigating and remedying unfair labor practices.

The typical NLRB process begins when employees submit a petition seeking to be represented by a union. The petition is then evaluated by the NLRB’s Regional Director, who conducts an investigation and holds hearings — if there are disputes between the union and employer — in order to determine which employees can be part of the union’s “bargaining unit,” or the group that will be covered in a union contract. Once the bargaining unit has been determined, the Regional Director will then conduct a representation election, in which all members of the bargaining unit can vote yes or no on forming a union. If a majority of voters votes yes, then the union is certified and empowered to elect a bargaining committee, democratically determine bargaining priorities, and sit down with the employer to negotiate a contract, which must then be ratified by a majority vote of those eligible.