Labor Unions and Graduate Students

Labor unions are legally-recognized entities that represents employees in collective bargaining with their employer during negotiations over a contract that determines hours, wages, and terms & conditions of employment. The right of private-sector employees to unionize is protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). A decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in 2016 ruled that graduate students in paid assistant roles are statutory employees under the NLRA. The 2016 Columbia decision reversed an earlier 2004 Brown decision that ruled graduate students are not statutory employees under the NLRA.

One of the most impactful ways a union interacts with represented employees and their employer is through contract negotiations, a process typically called collective bargaining. During this process, a union selects a bargaining team that engages in negotiations with the employer to write a contract that governs employee wages, hours, and terms & conditions of employment for a set length of time. However, this process is a negotiation; not all union demands may be satisfied by the final contract. Some union demands can even be rejected outright during the bargaining process if they fall outside the scope of items specified by the NLRA! Furthermore, the NLRA defines types of unlawful conduct by the union during negotiation and strike actions. While a union is legally authorized and protected by the NLRA, a union is also restrained by the NLRA. These restrictions also apply to what items a union can force negotiations over and a union’s conduct.


Who Wants to Unionize Us?

Unionization efforts on campus are currently led by Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU), in partnership with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). PGSU is a group of Princeton grad students that formed in the fall of 2016, in response to the Columbia decision by the NLRB. Shortly after forming, PGSU decided to affiliate with AFT, a national union, and its state chapter AFTNJ. Current efforts to promote unionization are a joint effort of PGSU and AFT, with AFT providing financial and material support to PGSU.


You may have heard about similar AFT-affiliated unionization efforts at Cornell, including their still-undecided election results from March 2017. Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU) is a remarkably similar organization to PGSU that is involved with the unionization effort there. Interestingly, CGSU formed in 2014 and has a history of three years of action at Cornell without a singular focus on unionization. Despite this longer organizing period at Cornell, the vote appears to be headed for a defeat of the proposed union, pending resolution of challenged ballots. Furthermore, a group of CGSU members calling themselves the Rank and File Democracy Caucus has formed to voice their objection to how the unionization campaign was run and the conduct of AFT and NYSUT (New York State Union of Teachers). At what cost are we similarly pursuing unionization at Princeton?

How Unionization Occurs

The following chart provides an overview of the unionization process. To the best of our knowledge, we are currently at the first step.

unionization process flowchart 1 copy.png

How Would Unionization Work at Princeton?

The unionization process is already underway at Princeton! From what we can ascertain, PGSU are currently still at step one, measuring union support among graduate students at Princeton with the help of AFT. We advise you to not sign any cards or statements, independent of whether you are told they are not authorization cards.