Q: What is NUGW?

A: Northwestern University Graduate Workers (NUGW) is a group of Northwestern graduate students committed to unionization. Participation in NUGW is open to all current Northwestern graduate students. To get involved, and for more information, contact nugraduateworkers@gmail.com. Find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Q: What is a union?

A: A union is a group of workers who have joined together to collectively represent themselves and their interests in the workplace.

Q: What do unions do?

A: Forming a union can give graduate workers the power to negotiate with the administration over any issues related to our working conditions, such as stipends, healthcare, grievance procedures, and research resources.

Q: What is a union contract or a Collective Bargaining Agreement?

A: When graduate workers form a union they collectively come up with a proposed contract that includes all of the rules of the workplace as well as any changes to those rules that they would like to see. That proposed contract is negotiated over by the grad union and the administration until full agreement is reached, then the edited contract goes back to the full union membership for a vote. If the grad union approves the final contract it will become the official rules by which the administration and grads operate.

Q: Who decides what goes into a graduate student union contract?

A: We do! The scope of contract negotiations are decided by the union members, which can include all Teaching Assistants, Research Assistants, and Graduate Assistant positions. An elected Bargaining Committee / Organizing Committee, once a union is certified, will circulate surveys to determine the goals of the members of the union. These goals will then be ratified by a vote of union members.

Q: Can graduate students form and join a union?

A: Yes! The National Labor Relations Board’s Columbia decision (August 23, 2016) recognizes student assistants (graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants and research assistants) as statutory employees. This means that we are entitled to legal protections under the National Labor Relations Act.

You have a legal right to:

  • Join a union
  • Attend a union meeting
  • Talk to a union organizer
  • Declare yourself a union supporter
  • Assist in forming a union

Employers are forbidden by law to engage in certain conduct.

Your employer may NOT legally:

  • Threaten you with discharge or punishment if you engage in union activity.
  • Prevent you from talking to your colleagues about the union during non-working hours.
  • Question you about union matters, union meetings, or union supporters.
  • Ask whether you belong to a union or have signed up to join a union.

Q: Can international students participate in the union?

A: Yes! Anyone employed in the United States has the same unionization rights and protections as citizens regardless of visa status. Visa requirements do not compromise your right to join a union, and no graduate employee union has reported any complications among the more than 60 unions across university campuses in the US.

Q: Will I have to join the union?

A: No, no one can be required to join the union. However, in most states, unions are legally obligated to represent all workers in the bargaining unit, members as well as non-members.

Q: What are union dues?

A: Union dues are how we fund our union! As a grad union we will be an independent organization, which means we will receive no funding from the administration. With the money we contribute through dues we can choose to pay a stipend to our elected union officers, we can send members to conferences, we can form an emergency fund, have social events, and more! Dues also pay for the costs associated with bargaining for a contract, and pay for legal representation if any of us need it.

Q: How do dues work?

A: After we have formed our union we will collectively decide on our own dues rate (which includes a small portion that goes to the national union, the AFT). The rate we choose will be included in the draft contract we negotiate over with the administration. All grad unions successfully negotiate raises that are higher than their dues, so that no one is losing money by joining. After negotiations have finished, and before you pay anything, all members vote on the final contract to ensure that everyone is on board with its provisions. No one would or does vote to approve a contract under which they lose money.

Q: What is the AFT?

A: The American Federation of Teachers is the national union which NUGW voted to affiliate with in Fall of 2016. The AFT is the second largest higher education union in the country and has the expertise and resources to help us win our union here at Northwestern. As an AFT affiliated union we will have local autonomy, including full control over our bargaining priorities, our political endorsements, our organizing efforts, etc. Other AFT locals in the region include UChicago graduate workers, UIC and UIUC grads and faculty, the Chicago Teachers Union, and more.

Q: How do we win our union?

A: There are a number of paths to unionization – an election through the National Labor Relations Board, voluntary recognition, or (in the public sector) card check. Because the Trump administration has appointed very anti-union people to the NLRB, a petition for an election through that body is likely to be used as a vehicle to overturn the Columbia decision (the ruling which made it legal for us to unionize). As a result all private sector grad union campaigns are now pursuing voluntary recognition.

Q: What is Voluntary Recognition?

A: Voluntary recognition is when organized workers demonstrate to their employer that the majority of employees support unionization, and demand that the employer recognize their right to form a union by negotiating with them. Here at Northwestern we are collecting signatures on our Mission Statement so that we can demonstrate majority support and call for recognition of our union.

Q: Things at Northwestern seem pretty good already, why do I need a union?

A: Because there is no contract, our working conditions depend entirely on who is in charge at any given time, and the administration can change or ignore their policies without graduate student consultation, or recourse. With a union, a negotiated contract protects the conditions and benefits that both sides have agreed to. For example, the administration removed dental care from our health insurance a few years ago without consulting with grads. It took grads raising this issue after the fact to get the current dental add-on coverage. With a union the administration would have to negotiate with us over such changes to our healthcare.

Q: Won’t the university have to cut funding elsewhere to pay for increased benefits for graduate students?

A: There has been no record of cuts being made at any of the many universities that have unions as a result of unionization. During collective bargaining, we will be able to see how university finances are budgeted, including their targeted $12 billion endowment this year, and help decide how Northwestern prioritizes its budget.

Q: Will a union mean all departments must follow the same cookie-cutter policies?

A: Our negotiated contract can be as detailed or as broad as we want it to be. As a general rule unions negotiate ‘floors not ceilings’. For example, we could fight for regular cost of living increases to the minimum stipend, which would apply across the board, but no department would be prevented from paying more (as many already do).

Q: How will unionization affect my relationship with faculty?

A: To date there has been no real evidence of unionization having a negative impact on advisor-advisee relationships. There is a peer-reviewed study on such effects across five academic disciplines across eight public U.S. universities, finding that:

  • Unionization does not have the presumed negative effects on student outcomes, and in some cases has a positive effect
  • Union-represented graduate employees report higher levels of personal and professional support
  • Unionized graduate student employees fare better on pay
  • Unionized and non-unionized students report similar perceptions on academic freedom

Ultimately the union operates on the level of upper administration and does not come between graduate workers and their advisors or faculty (unless you want the union to, in cases of harassment or abuse). That said, a union is often good for advisors and faculty. For example, with a union there is predictability around things like stipend increases, making it easier to get appropriate funding for labs.

Q: Will a union make me go on strike?

A: We are the union and only we decide if and when to go on strike. A strike, which is a mass work stoppage, is the absolute last resort of a union. If we decide there is an issue so serious that we cannot continue working until it has been resolved, all union members will vote on whether or not to go on strike. A strike vote requires a supermajority of support before it can be authorized. Typically a vote to strike is enough to win movement on the issue at hand, and the strike itself is averted.

Strikes look different in every sector, and even across departments. If you have concerns or would like to learn more about how strikes work in departments like yours, email us at nugraduateworkers@gmail.com.