After the Aug. 23 ruling from the National Labor Relations Board allowing graduate students to form unions on private university campuses, the Graduate Student Government organized a Unionization Fact Finding Committee to provide answers to questions graduate students might have about the possibility of unionizing.
“We’re trying to show students exactly what unionizing means,” Daniel Vitek, chair of the committee, said. Vitek is also the Academic Affairs chair of the GSG.
While the GSG is constitutionally bound not to encourage graduate student unionization, Vitek noted, it has focused on providing impartial information on the issue of unionization for students interested in the issue.
“We’re not unionizing, we’re fact-finding,” he said.
Vitek added that there’s “not a lot of institutional knowledge among our peer private institutions about how do you go about unionizing.”
The committee will conduct an impartial research on the relevant questions and compile the results into a report before the end of fall semester. Once the report is released, the committee will disseminate the report to graduate students through email, Vitek explained.
According to Vitek, the committee will attempt to illustrate what unionization contracts look like at other institutions and what kinds of advantages and disadvantages the unionized graduate students at those institutions experienced.
Assembly members of GSG will distribute the report to their departments and the GSG plans to host a town hall meeting before the end of the semester.
At the town hall, GSG will invite representatives from the administration, the office of general counsel and some advocates of the unionization, according to Vitek. He added that GSG is unsure who will represent the pro-unionization side.
“We want a graduate student perspective on what union experiences look like,” Vitek said.
He said that University graduate students do not really understand the advantages and disadvantages of these unions.
“If I don’t really understand, I’m pretty sure that most graduate students really don’t know what going on,” he said.
Notably, the ruling stipulated that students would only be represented by the union while they were teaching or researching for the University. This would create a situation where students would be moving in and out of the union if they are only taking classes.
“You could then move in and out of better or worse benefits from semester to semester,” Joshua Wallace GS said.
Vitek said the committee is trying to find out who could be part of and covered by the collective bargaining agreement. He noted that the committee is particularly looking into the union coverage for Master in Public Affairs students at The Wilson School, external and internal fellows, as well as students who bounce between statuses.
Vitek also noted that the University is particular in its opportunities for graduate students.
“Princeton is a remarkably endowed institution and even from a grad student perspective that’s obvious,” Vitek said. “When I was applying to and choosing between graduate schools, the financial situation here was a lot better than at competing institutions.”
“Relative to concerns other institutions have had, I think we’ve got it somewhat better, so there’s been a lot of discussion,” Vitek said.
Wallace said he agrees with Vitek.
“Princeton has the highest stipend of anywhere I was accepted or anywhere I’m aware of,” Wallace noted. He said that the stipend issue — as it is an issue of wages — would always be present with a union.
“There’s not really bargaining power, because Princeton does pay so much to grad students,” Wallace said.
Vitek said that although GSG has been vocal about many issues in the past, “[Unionization] is not a question of principle for most Princeton graduate students, it’s a question of would [a union] actually help.”
Vitek noted that graduate students are concerned about union dues, continuing administration support and the strikes — since if the union goes on strike, students will have to strike. Vitek said that he can’t speculate about what would happen if it were put to a vote. He said about half of the people he’s spoken to are in support of unionization, half in opposition. However, he also said that people in favor are totally in favor, but people in opposition are less sure.
Wallace said that he is not in favor of unionization but that most of the the students in his astrophysical sciences department are less active on the issue than his friends from other departments.
“I think it’s probably a bad idea and definitely merits very very careful consideration,” he said. “Of the problems that grad students face at Princeton University, not all of them would be able to be addressed by a union which can only address employer-employee relationship.”
Wallace said the the administration has been responsive to concerns brought up by GSG in his experience, though they may not always do what students want or they may be slow to respond. Wallace said he thinks there are other channels to relay issues without needing to unionize.
Wallace noted that because New Jersey is not a Right-to-Work state, unions can force people to pay agency fees instead of union dues. As a graduate student with a family, he said that budgets are often tight and that adding a fee might be difficult — even if the union were able to increase representation.
To certify a union, one would have to start collecting support cards where eligible individuals would indicate that they support creating a union. Under federal law, there is a 30 percent threshold of support to put unionization to a secret ballot. Once certified, there is a bargaining and negotiation process that can add another one to two years to the process. The following certification process can also take a year to complete.
Vitek said that if unionization were initialized at the University, he would be “shocked” if the process was complete before the 2018-19 school year.
According to the NLRB ruling, the 3-1 decision of Columbia over Brown University views “student assistants working at private colleges and universities are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act.”
The case, begun by a Columbia University graduate student who wished to be represented by the United Auto Workers, comes as a reversal of a 2004 ruling from the NLRB that barred graduate students the right to unionize, according to The New York Times. New York University graduate students are already represented by the UAW, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO.
Public university students began to have recognized unions in the 1960-70s, notably at the University of Michigan and the University of California Berkeley.
The University filed an amicus curiae brief in opposition to unionization in the Columbia University case with the NLRB.
After the August ruling, the University compiled an website to answer some of the most commonly asked questions regarding graduate student unionization. This website shares similar language to those websites on unionization created by Yale or the University of Pennsylvania — institutions for which Fisher & Phillips LLP filed the amicus brief for the University. Other institutions represented by the firm include the other Ivies, Stanford University, and MIT.
In this FAQ, the University wrote that “Princeton disagrees with the notion underlying the NLRB decision that a graduate student who is engaged in research or teaching in a given semester is transformed during that semester from a student into an employee.”
According the University’s FAQ page, 20 percent of the University workforce is represented by six staff unions.