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Graduate Student Unionization

On August 23, 2016, the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB") ruled that students in private universities who work in teaching assistant or research assistant positions are "employees" under federal labor law. This means that students in these teaching and research roles have the right to have a labor union represent them in their dealings with the University administration.  

Many, if not most, of our research and teaching assistants, have never been part of a labor union. For this reason, the University has put together these Frequently Asked Questions or FAQs to provide some background information on what a union is and what unionization could mean to our students.

What is a union?
A union is a private organization that represents a group of employees in their dealings with their employer. The group that the union represents is called a "bargaining unit." A union negotiates with the employer over terms and conditions of employment, such as wages, benefits, schedules, and promotional opportunities.  

How does a union get chosen to represent a bargaining unit?
A union is generally voted in through a "secret ballot election" conducted by the NLRB. In order to have an election, a union must get 30% of the employees in the bargaining unit they are seeking to represent to sign "authorization cards." In some cases, an employer may choose to recognize a union without an election if the union has authorization cards signed by more than half of the employees in the bargaining unit.  

What are authorization cards?
Authorization cards are documents signed by an employee that authorize the union to represent them in their dealings with the employer. Signing an authorization card is not just a request to be put on a mailing list or a request for additional information. It is a legal authorization designating a union as the employee's bargaining agent.  

What is a "secret ballot election?"
A secret ballot election is conducted by the NLRB. Voting would likely take place on campus on a specified day, during specified hours, or via a mail-in process. If a majority of those who vote in the election vote "yes," all persons in the bargaining unit will be represented by the union. This means that a small group of people could determine the election and, even if you did not vote or if you voted "no," the union will still be representing you in all dealings with the University administration over the terms and conditions of your employment.

When is the election held?
The election will usually be held about three weeks after the union files a petition for an election with the NLRB.  

Will all research assistants and teaching assistants be part of the election process?
That depends on what bargaining unit the union is seeking to represent. At Columbia University, a union is seeking to represent "all student employees who provide instructional services, including all graduate and undergraduate Teaching Assistants (Teaching Assistants, Teaching Fellows, Preceptors, Course Assistants, Readers and Graders); all Graduate Research Assistants (including those compensated through Training Grants) and all Departmental Research Assistants employed by [Columbia] at all of its facilities." In contrast, at Yale University, a union is seeking 10 separate elections among graduate students in 10 separate departments. At New York University, the union excluded from representation those students in the MBA program, the medical school, and most of natural science departments.

If there is an election and students vote against the union, can there be another election at a later date?

Yes. There is a one-year waiting period after an election until another election can be held.
The same union or a different union could seek an election one year later.

If the union wins the election, can the students vote it out at a later date?
Once a union wins an election, it remains the "certified representative" indefinitely and will represent all students within the bargaining unit who enroll in the future. The process to decertify (or remove) a union typically also requires a vote, and it is a complex process that can take years to complete.

Will students remain in the union regardless of their status with the University?
No. Because a union represents students only in their capacity as teaching and/or research assistants, students could enter the bargaining unit and be subject to union representation when serving as teaching and/or research assistants, but exit the bargaining unit and no longer be subject to union representation at other times.

Will students who are represented by the union have to pay a fee?
Yes. A union needs to charge it members' dues and fees to cover its operational costs, including salaries and expenses for union personnel. According to the union's website for graduate students at NYU, the UAW union charges students 2% of "total compensation during the semesters in which you are employed in a union position, and are deducted from every pay-check. This includes your wages from your union work and your NYU funding package. In addition to the dues there is an Initiation fee of up to $50." See http://makingabetternyu.org/gsocuaw/for-grad-workers/.

How would having a union represent me make things different for me as a teaching or research assistant?

It is difficult to predict exactly what would change if a union represented you. As a result of collective bargaining, terms and conditions of employment may get better, worse, or stay the same. However, it is just about a certainty that you will have to pay dues or fees to a union. It is also possible that you will lose the ability to work with your academic unit or the University Administration when it comes to issues such as stipends, teaching remuneration, and work or research hours. You will be represented by an outside organization (a labor union) for purposes of negotiating a unified set of terms and conditions of employment, whereas non-unionized group of students would be able to directly and individually communicate with faculty and the administration regarding working conditions.

If a union wins an election, will I lose some of the rights and privileges I currently enjoy?
That would depend on what is included in the collective bargaining agreement. Rules could be implemented that dictate how TAs and RAs are selected. It could be that assistantships must be negotiated exclusively with the union, with the union deciding what it thinks is best for graduate students.

What impact could a union have on off-site research activities such as conference/workshop attendance, field work, or research conducted at other universities?
That is not clear. If such activities are characterized as part of your work as an RA or TA, funding for conferences, travel and other work could be subject to negotiation with the union.

How does the collective bargaining process work?

Representatives of the University and a team of union negotiators would meet at agreed upon times and places to discuss the union's bargaining demands. The University is not required to agree to anything; its only obligation is to meet with the union at reasonable times and places and bargain in good faith.

Who would serve as the negotiators for the union?

Typically, a union has a paid professional staffer or attorney serve as its lead negotiator. The other members of the union "bargaining committee" are selected by members of the union. The exact process is usually set forth in the union by-laws.

Will each student represented by the union be given a chance to decide what the union asks for in bargaining?
That depends on the union's rules. Usually, the union bargaining committee meets with members of the bargaining unit and solicits proposals. The specific demands that are communicated to the University at the bargaining table are usually decided by the bargaining committee.

What happens if the University will not agree to the union's demands?
If the parties cannot reach an agreement, the University would have the right to declare an impasse in bargaining. If that were to happen, the University may have the right to unilaterally implement the terms of its last offer. Additionally, if no agreement is reached, the Union may call the students out on strike to put pressure on the University to agree to its demands.

Where can I go to learn more about varying views on unionization?

The NLRB's website, https://www.nlrb.gov, contains information about the unionization process. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, http://www.nrtw.org, offers information on how an individual can oppose efforts to force employees to join a union. Additionally, students at Cornell have set up a website, http://www.atwhatcost.org/, which contains detailed information about student unionization efforts at Cornell and other universities.

There is also a wealth of information included in briefs filed for and against student unionization with the NLRB in the Columbia University case (this is the case granting students the right to unionize). One brief was submitted by the AAUP (the American Association of University Professors) and the other by a group of peer institutions (Brown University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Stanford University, and Yale University). These briefs can be found on the NLRB website at https://www.nlrb.gov/case/02-RC-143012.

What is the University view on graduate student unionization?

We believe the NLRB's decision presents an opportunity for AU graduate students to engage in a robust discussion about the pros and cons of being a member of a union. We also believe that the academic relationship students have with faculty members and their academic departments is not the traditional "employee/employer" relationship. While we have concerns about involving a union in matters that go directly to scholarly training, we respect employees' rights to freely associate and organize, which include voting for or against union representation without intimidation or unjust pressure. Regardless of the outcome, we will continue to work with our graduate students to make their experiences, both intellectually and personally fulfilling.