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What can a union do about housing?

Labor law states that employers and unions must negotiate over hours, wages, and terms and conditions of employment. (NLRA, 29 USC §158(d)) Anything that falls outside of that either side can refuse to bargain over. So, does on-campus housing fall under hours, wages, and terms and conditions of employment?

Short answer: **no**, and therefore PGSU cannot expect to be able to bargain over housing. Housing is offered to us as students, not employees, and housing priority and pricing is completely dependent on our academic relationship and not our employee relationship with the university. Housing is therefore not a term or condition of employment.

There has been only one legal case regarding unions and grad student housing, and that was in 2010 at the University of Illinois and was argued before the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. (The decision for this case is not posted online, but we are more than happy to share the decision with anyone who asks for it.) Although this was not a decision from the NLRB, which oversees unionization for private universities, the decision was based on the same labor law that the NLRB interprets and uses other NLRB cases as precedent.

The question of the case was whether the University of Illinois increasing the cost of grad student housing was an unfair labor practice or not. The decision acknowledges other cases where the price of employer-provided housing was ruled to be a term or condition of employment (mostly for industrial workers in company towns) because the housing was held as below-market rates and offered just to company employees. Grad housing at Princeton is held at below-market rates, but it is not just offered to employees (AI’s and AR’s). Fellowship students can live in on-campus housing, and fellowship students are not employees of the university. In the case of the University of Illinois, the housing was neither held at below-market rated nor was it offered just to employees, so the IELRB ruled that university-provided housing was not a term or condition of employment and thus fell outside what a union could address. At Princeton, our housing is held at below-market rates, but it is offered to us as students and not employees, which seems to be the overriding consideration of the two, and thus it seems to us that precedent indicates a union at Princeton would not be able to negotiate anything regarding the price of housing.

It is also worth mentioning that, as far as we have been able to find, no union in the country has been able to negotiate for more employer-provided housing. Even if a union is able to have a say in the amount of housing, it will not be able to negotiate or strike to get the university to build more housing.

 

What can be done to advocate for improved grad student housing?

GAU acknowledges that housing is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, issues for graduate students at Princeton.  Even though a union would not be able to negotiate anything regarding housing, there are still several organizations through which graduate students can work to improve university-provided housing.  The Graduate Student Government (GSG) has always been a strong advocate for grad students with regards to housing.  Students can get involved with GSG either through being elected to the GSG Executive Committee, becoming their department’s GSG Assembly Rep, or by participating in the GSG’s Graduate Housing Project, a group of students that is the primary research and advocacy arm of the GSG for housing.  The Graduate Housing Advisory Board is a group of students and administrators that meets regularly to discuss housing issues; while attendance at meetings is typically limited only to members of the board, any issues brought up by any student can be discussed (best way to submit issues is through GSG).  And the various house committees at the GC, Lawrence Apartments, and Lakeside Apartments also provide advocacy for students and are happy to involve concerned residents.
Since a union cannot force negotiations on anything regarding housing, and the university has made clear it will not engage in non-mandatory negotiations regarding housing, any efforts PGSU can make on housing problems will merely be advocacy efforts and would be an unnecessary (and expensive!) duplicate of the organizations stated above.
While the university is unwilling to negotiate with a union regarding the non-mandatory issue of housing, it is making efforts towards improving current housing and making plans for future housing.  The Task Force on the Future of the Graduate School released a report in August 2015 (predating any Princeton unionization efforts!) identified housing as a particular point of concern for graduate students and recommended assessing housing demands and examining housing policies.  The university seems to be moving forward with planning for more graduate housing, as evidenced by a recent announcement regarding potential development of the West Windsor lands, including graduate housing as one of the options for development of those lands.