Our group’s name makes it clear: we are against a graduate student union at Princeton. Unionization is not needed at Princeton, and a union’s cost will outweigh the possible benefits it can achieve at Princeton. Read about our major objections to unionization, how we compare to unionized peers, and how unions relate to the issue of housing. Want to get involved or learn more? Feel free to contact us!
Major Objections to Unionization
– Unions have limitations in what items they can force negotiation on and pressure employers over.
Many key issues facing Princeton grad students, such as housing availability or academic matters, fall outside the scope of a labor union! The NLRB opinion made it clear that graduate students are considered employees only in the context of work done in paid assistant positions.
– Union dues impose a significant cost to each grad student in the bargaining unit, every year.
Dues and fees owed to AFT leave our local. The local receives some of that back in various forms, but AFT keeps the rest. AFT thus has a financial incentive to support unionization at Princeton now.
– We are currently comparably or better compensated and receive better benefits that unionized peers.
– Graduate student solidarity and organization can flourish without a union and its associated costs.
Princeton and Unionized Peers
The Graduate Student Government (GSG) commissioned a report at the start of 2017 that reported the stipends and benefits for grad students at unionized peer universities compared to those that we currently enjoy at Princeton. The entire report may be read here. Table 1 from that report nicely summarizes the stipend and major benefits at each university:
- NYU allocates a common childcare fund (currently $60,000 for calendar year 2016) to the entire graduate population; it’s unclear how many grad students use this fund.
- Support increases to $3850 for two children, and $5076 for three or more.
- Maximum available support increases to $10,000 for two or more children.
- The GSG found no mention of Rutgers graduate student health plans being paid for by tuition support, as is common among the other schools on this list.
- Rutgers dues are comparatively cheaper primarily due to sharing a union with their faculty; this arrangement is relatively uncommon as far as the GSG is aware. Tenure-track faculty at private universities are not permitted to unionize, as per the 1980 Supreme Court case NLRB v. Yeshiva University.
The last two rows of the table list the cost of union membership for members (dues) and non-members (agency fees). Membership dues range from $155 per year at Rutgers to $537 per year at NYU. Rutgers presents a difficult case to analyze, as the graduate students’ AFT union is twinned with the faculty AAUP union. Despite not having a union – and not paying these union fees – we are paid more and have better benefits than unionized peers. Note that students, holding positions represented by the union, who choose not to be union members still must pay fees to the union. You read that correctly – even if you do not want to be a union member, you must still pay the union money. This called an “agency fee.” New Jersey is one of the 22 states that allow unions to collect agency fees.
You may have heard claims that we don’t get paid enough to live in the undeniably affluent area of Princeton, NJ; Princeton’s cost of living index is nearly twice that of the national average at 207.30. Despite Princeton being expensive for anyone, our generous total compensation ameliorates this high cost of living. Let’s compare Princeton University to NYU and their decade-old union. The cost of living index for Manhattan is 260.60, which is 25% higher than Princeton’s cost of living index. Even with a union, graduate students at NYU are paid 15% less than we are at Princeton, representing nearly 30% less effective income for NYU grad students versus Princeton grad students (based on AY ’17-’18 stipends). This same analysis is true for Cal-Berkeley, where the cost of living index in Berkeley is 247.50, 19% more, and their pay is 12% less than ours.
Note: “normalized stipend” represents the raw value of the stipend normalized by the cost of living index for each location. Princeton’s normalized stipend is nearly 50% higher than for unionized peers at NYU and Cal-Berkeley!
Beyond stipends, the childcare and healthcare plans at unionized peers are no matches for what we have here at Princeton. Princeton’s healthcare contribution is 100%, meaning the university pays for our insurance in its entirety, and the deductible/copay policy, 20% deductible for most services with no copay for routine visits, is better than NYU’s basic health plan by every metric. If an NYU student elects to upgrade to the “comprehensive health plan”, the NYU plan slightly outclasses Princeton’s plan, but is more than double the cost of Princeton’s plan. Additionally, NYU student’s pay 10% of their health insurance cost, whereas Princeton fully covers our health insurance costs, while providing comprehensive coverage for many things such as gender affirmation surgery.
These data beg the question: if Princeton students already enjoy benefits comparable to or superior to the benefits enjoyed by our peers at unionized peer institutions, what cause do we have to unionize?
What case would a union have for increasing our benefits or pay?
What value does a union bring for its significant dues and fees without substantial increases to already generous stipends and benefits?
Unions and Grad Student Housing
It’s fair to say that graduate student housing at Princeton is a major issue for nearly every grad student. The fundamental problem is scarcity: there is not enough housing stock capacity to house all Princeton grad students on campus. Could a union solve this problem through collective bargaining? A union cannot compel an employer to build housing. We have only found limited cases where a union has been able to argue about employer-supplied housing. In all these cases, the common prerequisite for allowing a union to negotiate over the price of housing was that an employer made living in company housing a term & condition of employment. This is not the case at Princeton: we are offered housing as students and receive priority for housing based on academic standing not on our status as paid assistants.
A graduate student union would face a long, uphill legal battle to demonstrate that housing is linked to our employment in paid assistant positions. Victory in this endeavor could result in cheaper housing, if a union were successful in negotiating it. However, a union cannot compel Princeton to build more grad student housing. A union would not uniquely deal with the housing situation and could not use collective bargaining to address the root cause of the housing problem and increase housing availability.
The good news is there are things that you can do right now to advocate for expanded and improved graduate student housing. Students can get involved with the Graduate Student Government (GSG) through election to the Executive Committee, as a departmental GSG Assembly Representative, or by joining GSG’s Graduate Housing Project (GHP). The Graduate Housing Advisory Board (GHAB) is a group of students and administrators that meets regularly to discuss housing issues; while meeting attendance is typically limited to GHAB members, you can still submit concerns to this body through the GSG. Each housing complex also has house committees: the Graduate College House Committee, the Lakeside Apartments Committee, and the Lawrence Apartments Committee.
So What Now?
After reading all this you might be wondering what comes next. The important thing is that you make your voice heard. If you support or oppose unionization, this is an issue that will impact you and your opinion matters. We want to hear from you – you can find our contact info here.