Learned are the Unionized

Reprinted from The Princeton Progressive

By Seyitcan Ucin ’20 and Tajin Rogers ’20

On October 11th, with the classroom of McCosh 62 full well beyond its seating capacity, graduate students representing departments from Astrophysical Sciences to the Woodrow Wilson School gathered in the first open town-hall meeting to discuss unionization. Many, unsure of how a union would affect them, hoped the meeting would ease their worries. Others, ready to dive into resolving the grievances they had with the University, asked about how their specific wants could be negotiated with a union. One graduate student and father stood up and asked about improving childcare subsidies—as it stands, the University offers a childcare subsidy that awards, at most, less than half the average cost of childcare in New Jersey. An older graduate student argued for retirement packages; doctoral students can spend more than half a decade of their working life without accruing any significant funds towards their retirement. One doctoral student in the history department listed housing and cost of living as primary concerns that the University has failed to meet. As an example, graduate students on the base stipend qualify for public housing in Mercer County, although long waitlists make this an impractical solution. In an interview following the meeting, a grad student noted that although a studio apartment is the single most-requested option, there are only 34 in the entire graduate housing system. Another, from Europe, mentioned the exclusion of dental and vision care from the regular health plan—on top which, graduate students pay twice the deductible cost of regular faculty. The sentiments voiced at the town hall were not spontaneous outbursts; they indicate more deeper-running currents. In this time of change, they reëmerged at this meeting, itself many years in the making.


The National Labor Relations Act became law in 1935, as part of FDR’s Second New Deal. The US beginning to emrge from the Great Depression; the already precarious conditions of employment for laborers in the early 20th century, which had spawned an economic leftism not seen since in this country, were further stressed by recession and a swollen pool of unemployed labor. It was in this context that the NLRA, also known as the Wagner Act, sought offer a legal framework for unions and for the collective bargaining process, which had long been a chaotic (and sometimes violent) affair.

The Wagner Act established the National Labor Relations Board, comprised of Senate-approved Presidential appointees, to enforce labor law and both oversee and set the terms of union elections. Importantly, the NLRB rules on what comprises a “bargaining unit”—a group of workers that can be adequately represented by a single union. Regional Offices of the NLRB receive workers’ petitions and supervise the process of union elections directly. If, through the election, a union is formed, “the employer and union are obligated by law to bargain in good faith with each other over terms and conditions of employment”; the NLRB is charged with enforcing this law.

While graduate students at public universities usually fall under state regulations on the status of public employees’ unions, and thus escape the jurisdiction of the NLRB, private graduate students’ legal ability to unionize traces back to a petition brought before the NLRB by students at Adelphi University in 1972. Directly following the precedent set by Cornell just two years prior—which held that private universities were under the jurisdiction of the NLRB, using the university’s engagement in interstate commerce as justification—students at Adelphi petitioned to join the existing faculty union. The NLRB found that graduate students were primarily students and “do not share a sufficient community of interest with the regular faculty to warrant their inclusion in the unit.” Important to note, Adelphi didn’t indicate that graduate student employees weren’t able to unionize in accordance with the Wagner Act in their collective bargaining unit. However, in 1974, physics students at Stanford delivered a petition to NLRB to form an independent union for physics research assistants; the Board held that graduate student assistants were not “employees” as defined by the Wagner Act because they were “primarily students,” and thus were not entitled to the protections of the Act. This was the position of the NLRB for 40 years—with the exception of the period between the 2000 NYU ruling, when graduate students at private institutions were permitted to unionize, and the 2004 Brown University ruling of a Bush-appointee-heavy board that overturned NYU. Again, the Board concluded that while there might be some economic aspect to the system of compensation for teaching assistance, “it is clear to us that graduate student assistants, including those at Brown, are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.”

In August of this year, the NLRB ruled on a petition from graduate students at Columbia, which had been received at the end of 2014. Reversing its Brown decision, the current Board’s argument hinged on that fact that “statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the Act does not reach.” In other words, regardless of whether or not the academic dimension of graduate students’ relationship to their university outweighs the economic dimension, the mere existence of an employment relationship permits the formation of a collective bargaining unit. In an intentionally broad move (“it is appropriate to extend statutory coverage to students working for universities covered by the Act unless there are strong reasons not to do so”), the NLRB’s approved bargaining unit included graduate students, terminal Master’s degree students, and even undergraduates employed under certain conditions.

Today, graduate unions at several peer institutions are in the final stages of organization. The Graduate Workers of Columbia, affiliated with United Automobile Workers, will be holding their election on December 7 and 8.  The Harvard Graduate Student Union, also affiliated with UAW, held their election in mid-November, though the results were not finalized by the time we went to print. The Duke Graduate Students Union, affiliated with Service Employee International Union, has filed their petition to the NLRB to hold an election. The Yale graduate employee union, Local 33, affiliated with UNITE HERE has also submitted their petition and is awaiting an election date by the NLRB. Efforts for unionization at here at the “Southern Ivy” have lagged behind, as one might expect. But the history of graduate organization hasn’t always been so tepid.


The very first Princeton graduate student union was actually the Princeton Graduate Draft Union, formed in April 1967. While deferments continued to be given to undergraduates, in early 1968 the Johnson administration abolished the deferment for most graduate students (medical, dental, and divinity students excepted). There had been some earlier organization by the SDS on campus, but grad student organizers had called any active grad student resistance “latent”. In the late-sixties heyday of political organization on campus (it was in 1968 that students from the University’s SDS chapter carried the “Even Princeton” at the March on Washington, countering Princeton’s already-established reputation as a bastion of staid post-war conservatism), the Graduate Draft Union found some traction. The Daily Princetonian reported in May 1968 that it “attracted over 350 anxious graduate students to its first open meeting.” Still, the union shied away from the more direct and Left-affiliated politics of the undergraduate Princeton Draft Resistance Union, which focused on Vietnam as an unjust, neo-imperialist conflict: “The graduate union aims to reform the draft laws. Failing that it will try to find a way out for anyone who doesn’t want to go in to [sic] the Army,” the article concluded. So while this grad union student overlapped with the formation of the Council of the Princeton University Community in 1969, it eventually disappeared; by the time the US had pulled out of direct ground engagement, in 1973, it had become obsolete.

Graduate student unionization emerged again in 1988. “Strife Over Substance and Style Tests Princeton’s Leader”, read a December New York Times headline, tucked back in the N.Y./Region section, detailing the situation. Two years prior, Dr. Harold T. Shapiro GS ‘64 had succeeded the (late) well-liked William Bowen GS ‘58 as University President. In the spring, the University had projected a not-inconsiderable $3.5 million dollar deficit, out of a then-$400 million annual budget. While the University was still far from broke (in 1989, the endowment was a paltry $2.7 billion for 6200 students), President Shapiro oversaw some tightening of the purse-strings; “We are terribly well-financed, but we are not immune from choices,” he told the Times. Among the budget items offered up for cuts were graduate students’ access to counseling, security services, and weekend meals at the graduate college, prompting pushback. In an interview with the Prince, a grad student was quoted saying, “there is an aggressive policy being waged by Nassau Hall against us,” while another declared, “These cuts are symbolic of our marginal status at the University.” The disappointment and frustration was compounded by the previous elevation of grad students’ hopes: Dr. Shapiro had been the first (and remains the only) president to be a graduate alumnus of the University—all the previous had been undergraduate alumni. Grad students who hoped that this would lead to greater understanding and sympathy for the issues that they faced were let down. “I remember being incredibly disappointed that having a grad alum as president made so little difference,” one then-grad student recalls. “It was crazy, actually.”

The nucleus of a graduate student union, formed from meetings over the summer of ’88, consolidated its position in the fall of that year, when three-quarters of the grad student body responded to a survey on a whether they wanted a graduate organization. The decision was made with enthusiasm—97% of respondents were in favor of organization. Even at the time, some felt that the organization was “long overdue”. As one survey response read, “I have been to four different universities, and I have never before seen a graduate student body as demoralized and disenfranchised as Princeton’s.” Various ad hoc committees were formed, one of which was dedicated to establishing the structure and makeup of a larger assembly. In the end, the assembly was formed with representatives from different departments, residences, and identity groups.

When the Graduate Student Union first formed in 1989, previous NLRB rulings meant that collective bargaining wasn’t a viable option for the graduate students, though “we did indeed talk about that possibility in the abstract,” a grad student recalls.  Its motivation was nevertheless union-like, demonstrating to the Princeton community that graduate students “wanted to band together”; indeed, the decision to call it a “union” had “intentionally combative” tones.  In 1999, however, the Graduate Student Union was renamed to be the Graduate Student Government—and the changes went beyond the organization’s name. For example, the GSG’s constitution states that one of its purposes is “to provide a forum for free and open discussion of matters affecting [graduate students], and to provide financial and organizational support for social events within this community.” In contrast, the original constitution of the GSU focused on its role as a “representative organization to advocate the interests of graduate students at Princeton University.” An organization that was meant to represent graduate students’ interests to the University became one through which the University shapes graduate student life at Princeton.

This Spring, several graduate students began organizing in the event of a positive decision by the NLRB. The group began their efforts in secrecy, but the news of the decision meant that they could bring their work into the open to form a larger movement without University obstruction. The October 12 meeting prompted discussion of union affiliation. Graduate students voted to hold the voting for affiliation the following week. As some leaders of the group explained, the vote of affiliation—which national labor union to join in the event of an affirmative unionization vote—was not the same as the actual vote on whether to unionize, which must be undertaken by the whole graduate student body. Affiliating with a union before a vote on unionization itself gives organizers and graduate students access to the resources provided by the national union, from legal counsel on labor law to a physical space for organizing. Still, one graduate student asked whether 65 people was enough to adequately represent the views of the entire student body. Although David Walsh, a graduate student in history and prominent member of the unionization effort, explained that the vote on affiliation at another Ivy-League university (which has four times as many graduate students as Princeton) was held by 60 people, the room voted to postpone a vote, citing a need for greater comprehension of the different proposals, more deliberation time, and a wider audience.

At the meeting, graduate students considered proposals from the AFT, American Federation of Teachers, and the SEIU, Service Employees International Union. While both proposals made some of the same commitments to the unionization process—legal aid, access to trained organizers, and a delay on union dues until after full union formation—the AFT made more concrete pledges, including a space for a campaign headquarters and 3-5 full time staff.

The difference, in part, can be traced to the unions’ larger missions and organization. The AFT mostly focuses on education and has a looser national leadership and increased local autonomy; on the other hand, the larger SEIU, with more political origins in gender and immigrant labor struggles, as well as a broad range of workers in its ranks, has a more strongly centralized structure. There were pros and cons of both. With unions on every campus of Rutgers, the AFT has experience with labor law as it pertains higher education in New Jersey, a point that resonated with grad students. Supporting the decision, Walsh cited the AFT’s “proven track record of successful organizing in the state of New Jersey.” The SEIU, however, organizes Princeton’s dining staff and has already established dialogue with the University. Further, some at the meeting brought up the idea of sympathy strikes enabled by close coordination with the dining employees, although the legality was never confirmed—under the Wagner Act, NLRB-recognized unions have to abide by a plethora of regulations.

When the affiliation vote occurred, on Oct. 18, 162 grad students voted, with 77.1% voting for the AFT. The AFT, for its part, welcomed the decision. In a statement, president Randi Weingarten said, “We’re very excited that Princeton grad students—like those at Cornell and the University of Chicago—have chosen the AFT and our state affiliate, AFT New Jersey. The recent NLRB decision, Columbia University, has given grad employees at private universities the same rights as their public counterparts; it’s a pathway for a real say over their work lives.”


In these early days, the most-used argument against graduate unionization at Princeton has been the comparative comfort of graduate students here, especially given the underfunded state of public universities across the US today. More commonly used when discussing lower-wage laborers, this argument hinges on the supposed magnanimity and benevolence of the employer, who could otherwise be drawing from a wider labor market. The workers, in turn, should be grateful for their provider’s largesse. As one graduate student responded, “I think that’s an insidious logic that implies that the mistreatment of others should immediately disqualify any grievances, complaints, or demands for fairer and better treatment that workers who are supposedly ‘better-off’ might have.” Certainly the labor conditions of some other workers, e.g., dining-hall workers and custodial staff, require more vigilant defense against abuses. The claim is not, as some would frame it, that struggles of the graduate students at private institutions like Princeton are “equivalent” to these—that would be callous and simply untrue. However, the improvement of one does not preclude the other, as nearly all union detractors would admit when pressed. The argument against unionization, then, must show clear harm that will be done to graduate students.

In February, Princeton, along with the entirety of the Ivy League, MIT, and Stanford, filed an amicus brief to the NLRB against the legality of unionization. “[We] believe that reversal or modification of Brown would significantly damage private sector graduate education in this country and will represent an inappropriate intrusion into long protected areas of academic freedom and autonomy,” the amici argued. The brief further charges that legal labor relations are not appropriate in an academic sphere because “the very premise of the Act is conflict-driven; it is not based in the civility of academic discourse.” While the NLRB decision doesn’t go as far as claiming that academic freedom will increase as a result of collective bargaining, the notes cite that there is no empirical evidence suggesting that academic freedom will be harmed. In fact, the NLRB explains that any possible infringement of academic freedom can be negotiated in contractual agreements between the graduate students and the administration: “…faculty members have successfully negotiated collective bargaining agreements that address terms and conditions of employment at private universities while contractually ensuring academic freedom for decades.” At the town hall, Walsh offered a slightly different line. “When students are less concerned about their material circumstances and their position within the program, they feel that they can take more chances. [It’s] more of an opportunity to practice academic freedom.” On the empirical side, the decision also cites Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Faculty–Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay (Sean Rogers, et al.), which surveyed graduate students at unionized and non-unionized universities and found no significant evidence that collective bargaining led to a less free academic climate. In fact, the study showed, “unionized students were more likely than nonunionized students to report respect for differing opinions in their university.”

A large part of the more serious case against grad unionization, as stated by the NLRB itself, is that “the student-teacher relationship is based on mutual academic interests, in contrast to the conflicting economic interests that inform the employer-employee relationship.” Similarly, in their brief, the amici praise the earlier Brown decision for concluding that “the graduate assistants are students whose relationship with the university is primarily academic, not economic. This has not changed.” While it is true that the economic relationship between the University and its graduate students has not eclipsed the academic relationship (and, hopefully, never will) the rhetoric used in the brief does nothing to acknowledge the long-term shift in the role of graduate students that has accompanied the changing structure of the American university. Princeton has been spared the worst of these changes by our titanic endowment, but as the nationwide reconfiguration of higher education shows no signs of abating, it makes sense to keep a watchful eye on the future.

Yet even if graduate students are still “more” students than they are workers, there is no reason to ignore the fact that they are also workers. As one graduate student acutely wrote to us, “[The] mutual academic interest doesn’t contradict the fact that there’s an economic relationship in play when we do work and receive compensation for it. In fact, recognizing that work as work, engaging in collective bargaining over wages, benefits, and other conditions of our employment, can let the purely academic and intellectual relationship stand on its own. There’s many ways in which having a union can actually improve rather than confuse or complicate the academic relationship between student and advisor, because it allows the economic relationship between employee and employer to be openly acknowledged and more explicitly separated from the academic relationship.” Further, if one looks for empirical evidence, Rogers et al. contends that “unionization becomes a significant positive predictor of both the personal support and professional support dimensions of student-teacher relationships.” This is unsurprising. As another graduate student explained, “the Grad Students are not employed by their professor, but by the university, like the professors themselves… [while] the professors might be the ones distributing the work and determining the tasks Student Workers have to do, they are not the ones paying for the work.” Indeed, while the very structure of academia works strongly against any sort of professorial labor organizing, “professors and Grad Students both share mutual academic interests and are both, though on very different levels, employees by [sic] the university.”

Another specter raised by union opponents is a strike that would force graduate students to halt teaching and research. In the words of the sleek website of the “Princeton Unionization Information Committee”, “If the New Jersey chapter does decide to strike, however, it is possible that you will be forbidden from working on your research or teaching. If you work anyway, you will be fined.” Strikes are not decided upon casually. An “economic strike”, as classified by the Wagner Act, is rarely called without a long period of failed negotiation.

Further, while a local will sometimes have to consult a parent union with regards to funding before initiating a strike, state and national unions do not force locals to strike, especially in an organization as decentralized as the AFT, which allows its locals a high degree of autonomy. It’s safe to say that the nightmare scenario of a widely unpopular forced strike is, in all likelihood, just a specter. However, if graduate students wanted a formal guarantee of being able to research at all times, the University and a graduate student union could agree on a “no-strike no-lockout” policy in a proposed contract. In that case, the graduate students would trade their ultimate tool—the strike—for a guarantee that they would never be locked out of their laboratories and classrooms. Although recent events at Long Island University would seem to point to the prudence of reserving the right to strike in cases of extreme need, a no-strike no-lockout policy might be a good fit for Princeton, given the abundance of funding.

Some detractors might ask why the graduate student body needs a second representative organization—after all, don’t they have the GSG, and its 7 seats on the U-Council? To be sure, all the graduate students with whom we spoke appreciated the work that the GSG does—“the GSG does a fantastic job, and there are great people in the leadership there”, one graduate student clarified before launching into a long critique—but they also expressed a desire for an organization that does more. Because it has never been a labor union (even when billed as the GSU) and is not under the Wagner Act, the University is under no legal obligation to negotiate with it in good faith. While it can make recommendations, the University is under no legal requirement to abide by these; it is, as one student said, “toothless”. Furthermore, the GSG is “financially and institutionally dependent on the University”: it receives its funding from the University, and Dr. Kulkarni, the Dean of the Graduate School, often attends its meetings. While Dean Kulkarni’s presence makes sense, and is even necessary, at a meeting of students petitioning their administrators, it would be utterly out of place in a meeting of workers—in that sphere, Dr. Kulkarni would be akin to a manager. Of course, a PGSU would not totally supplant the GSG—the two relationships, economic and academic, would still coexist.

In short: unions in American higher education work, have worked, and, if Princeton’s graduate students move forward with unionization, will work for them too. With regards to the material bottom line, Rogers et al. reports that “unionized GSEs reported higher stipends, and greater pay fairness and adequacy than did nonunion GSEs, all differences that were statistically significant.”

At NYU, another well-funded private university, when graduate workers organized and negotiated a contract in 2002, they won a 38% increase to minimum stipends, guaranteed tuition and fee waivers, and, for the first time, fully-paid health insurance. While the data does not yet exist for other Ivy League institutions specifically, we should begin to see it at Harvard in the next year—and it would be surprising for it to buck the established pattern. Even in this past year, before the results of the NLRB’s decision have had time to take effect, leading “peer” universities across the country have made concessions to graduate students, in what looks awfully like an attempt at appeasement. The universities themselves know that graduate student unions will win better benefits and compensation.

A recent editorial in the Prince concluded that “for graduate students at elite institutions, the case against unionization is … about protecting the right—which even in academia is an increasingly rare privilege—not to be a worker.” We think that this is exactly the case for unionization. The precious privilege to be something other than a worker—a student, a human separate from her labor-power—is something to be safeguarded, and simply ignoring time spent working does not cause it to disappear. By separating the time and labor that make graduate students workers, and by working for material benefits, a PGSU would enable graduate students to commit more time to their own studies and pursuit of learning. What could be more important to the University than that?