The right to strike is the main leverage a union could employ to get their way during contract negotiations with the university. A strike occurs when the union membership, dissatisfied by unfair labor practices or the proposals or counteroffers made by the employer during negotiations over wages, hours, and conditions of employment, votes to stop working to force the employer to concede to union demands. There are legal limitations regarding conduct during the strike and when a strike may be called; for instance, a strike may be called if the employer refuses to negotiate a “lawful object” (such as wages). On the other hand, a strike can be deemed unlawful if it is called due to the employer’s refusal to negotiate over a “non-mandatory object.”

If a strike were proposed at Princeton, all dues-paying members would vote to decide if a strike would occur. At present, it is unknown exactly what a strike would look like at Princeton, since the bylaws that govern many strike procedures are locally determined and would only be formalized and approved by the union membership after the union forms. Because of the time-sensitive nature of the work of many graduate students (for example, labs that have animals that need to be tended to daily), the strike policy may be more nuanced than simply “all union members must strike.” However, some things are certain. If you are a member of a union that initiates a strike and refuse to abide whatever bylaws exist, you can be disciplined by the union. As the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation notes, “Many courts have held that unions have the power to discipline their members. This discipline can include imposing a significant fine upon you and then suing you to enforce the payment of the fine.” Union members also have the right to give up their union membership and no longer have to abide by the union bylaws; however, some unions (not all) have clauses in their membership agreements limiting the times of year in which members can withdraw from the union, which makes it complicated to try to quit a union during a strike. Most graduate student unions we have examined do not have such clauses and allow quitting at any time for any reason; however, the proposed union at UPenn has such a “maintenance of membership” clause in their representation agreements. Also, during a strike, an employer can hire new employees to fill the empty positions. For strikes protesting unfair labor practices, an employer is required to give back jobs to the strikers, but is not obligated to do so for other kinds of strikes.

Punishments levied by unions against workers who decide to work during a strike can indeed be “significant,” as highlighted in a 2012 case brought before the NLRB. The legal firm Hall Render details the case: “In 2012, IAM Local Lodge 851 and about 700 of its members went on strike against Caterpillar. Three of the union members decided to continue working and crossed the picket line [i.e., worked during the strike]. The strike eventually settled and all the employees went back to work. However, for those three, the union informed them that they would be ‘brought up on charges’ for crossing the picket line. The union then held a hearing and issued fines to the three union members of $15,564, $11,938 and $21,558, respectively, based on 60% of the wages earned after crossing the picket line. The employees filed a charge with the NLRB against their union for having imposed the fines. The employees argued that they had resigned from the union, but the Administrative Law Judge didn’t believe them and upheld the fines, and the NLRB adopted that decision.”

How did this affect the workers? One of the fined workers stated to the Chicago Tribune: “It made me lose more respect for the union. I could have stayed longer in the picket line and file for bankruptcy, but being young as I am I was not going to risk my wife’s future over a contract like this.” Even after the strike, the deal eventually reached by the union was called a “sellout” by pro-union media sources.

NYU’s graduate student union has a “no strike, no lockout” clause in its contract with NYU. Some graduate students at Princeton have suggested that we also should negotiate for such a clause if a union forms. This would ease student concerns about the implications striking may have upon academic progress. Others have said that a union at Princeton should not give up their right to strike as this would sacrifice the most powerful weapon the union can employ against the university should contract negotiations fail. So which will it be? The truth is that we would not know until after a union forms and a contract is negotiated and voted upon by dues-paying union members. The union, it has been promised, will have the best interests of graduate students as its goal. However, neither of the two situations described above (the possibility of a strike, and a “no strike, no lockout” clause) seem particularly good. If the union allows for the possibility of a strike, then union members face the possibility of an interruption to their academic work or having to leave the union. If the union negotiates a “no strike, no lockout” clause in the contract, then it loses its greatest leverage in its bargaining power. And as stated above, we won’t know which will be the situation until after a union forms, after we have already voted.