Northwestern University Graduate Workers (NUGW) is an antiracist, feminist labor union fighting for better working and living conditions for all graduate workers. We understand that the material conditions of our academic lives, and the right to a collective voice in decisions that affect these conditions, are inherently issues of racial, gender, and decolonial justice. We are dedicated to building a diverse and democratic union that centers the needs of historically excluded and underrepresented students, particularly Black, Indigenous, POC, queer, trans, undocumented, low-income, first-generation, parenting students and students living with disabilities or chronic illnesses.
As research assistants, teaching assistants, and instructors of record, we play a vital role in the day-to-day functioning and long term success of Northwestern. We are united in the goal of achieving formal recognition from Northwestern’s administration so we can collectively bargain for an inclusive, collaborative workplace in which all graduate students flourish. Specifically, we advocate for:
- A democratic union that empowers students to advance their interests as equal participants in the university’s decision making process and holds the university accountable to its core mission of research and education.
- The needs of our diverse student body, especially the needs of historically excluded and underrepresented groups. We strongly oppose inequality, discrimination, and harassment in all forms.
- Safe, reasonable, and comfortable working conditions, including increased protection from arbitrary termination, sexual harassment, and all forms of discrimination.
- The financial security necessary to enable academic success, including adequate healthcare, childcare, and a living wage.
- The intellectual and academic freedom of graduate students to teach and research topics of legitimate scholarly interest without fear of reprisal.
NUGW stands in solidarity with workers and students everywhere organizing for a just and equitable system of higher education, and with other workers at Northwestern University, including service workers, staff, adjuncts, and undergraduate student workers. We are committed to actively supporting other organizing initiatives across and beyond Northwestern’s campus, and to linking our common struggles.
History of NUGW
From 2016 to Today
NUGW is engaged in an active recognition campaign. We are gathering cards to submit to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to call for a union election so we can move forward on negotiating key goals from our platform.
This is an ongoing, grassroots, collaborative effort that all NU grad workers are welcome to join.
Grad workers can get informed by talking to their Department Organizers, reaching out here with the contact us button, or attending NUGW events.
GET INVOLVED by taking these steps::
We are building grad worker power! Join us!
Oct 3, 2022
United Electrical Workers (UE) Affiliation
Throughout the Spring and Summer of 2022, the Affiliation Committee researched the possibility of NUGW choosing to affiliate with several possible national unions. This decision was made to ensure that we have the resources and expertise to turn our six-year campaign for a union into a movement that can win a contract with material gains for all grad workers on campus.
The affiliation committee recommended affiliation with United Electrical Workers (UE) because:
- UE is committed to rank-and-file unionism
- UE has strong experience organizing grad workers
- UE has championed social justice and equality throughout their history
In a referendum held in September 2022, membership voted overwhelmingly (>98%) in favor of affiliation between NUGW and UE. This established several working relationships that strengthens NUGW's organizing, and helped launch our official recognition campaign!
Oct 3, 2022
Graduate Needs Survey
Specific graduate needs need to be understood to set contract priorities, so NUGW put together a graduate needs survey to distribute throughout NU. Throughout the month of April, we were able to gather over 1900 responses from PhD students to guide our contract priorities!
See our campaign platform for an overview of some of the most important issues for graduate workers!
Oct 3, 2022
Building Department Organizing Infrastructure
Winter Quarter 2021
It is essential that every grad worker gets reached and heard by NUGW. Involving members from each department, via natural connections and friendships fostered in workspaces, is the most effective way to facilitate that two-way communication. We call the volunteers participating in these individual discussions about NUGW with their colleagues Department Organizers (DOs).
Finding and preparing these organizers has helped grow NUGW's reach tremendously, and you can find your DOs on the Department Organizers Directory page! You can also consider becoming a DO to help act as a liaison between your department, lab, and friends, and the wider NUGW community!
Paid Medical Leave Campaign Win
In the wake of the unprecedented 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, NUGW responded by petitioning the University for a series of changes to ensure graduate and other worker health and safety. These demands included: a universal one-year funding extension for all graduate students; divestment from EPD/CPD and disbandment of the NUPD; expanded sick leave and subsidized health insurance for dependents of graduate workers; and compensation to all laid-off service workers. In April 2020, NUGW hosted its first “tweetstorm” to bring attention to our concerns, and on May 1, 2020, NUGW conducted a virtual sit-in and rally for these demands. NUGW members voted to authorize a three-day Sick Out for these demands, which was held June 3-5. In August, 2020, Northwestern announced that it would provide fully paid medical leave to graduate workers for the first time, providing up to two quarters of funding.
COVID-19 Sick Out
In June 2020, laboratory workers across the Evanston and Chicago campuses reported concerns about their safety coming into their laboratories during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The university designated many STEM graduate students working in laboratories as "essential workers," requiring that they come in before there were clear steps in place to protect their health. These working conditions posed a risk to all laboratory workers, but especially those with high-risk and chronic conditions. NUGW STEM workers came together with their social science and humanities colleagues to "sick out" from work for a day. This action highlighted the unsafe lab conditions and the university's overall lack of response to the pressures the pandemic put on graduate students' work and well-being. NUGW demands included:
- Strengthen protections for lab workers by implementing third-party oversight of lab safety plans, safety planning for future spikes in COVID cases, allowing for anonymous reports of non-compliance specifically related to COVID-19 safety protocols, and guaranteeing protection from retaliation for individuals who report non-compliance with a transparent protocol for enforcement
- Emergency three-day sick, family, and bereavement leave without documentation for all graduate workers
- Universal one-year funding extension for all enrolled students and removal of restrictions on GA-ships and other funding sources once available to 6th and 7th-year students.
NUGW also used this as an opportunity to reiterate our petition for the university to support the demands of groups that serve underrepresented and underserved graduate workers, like Coalition NU. We also asked that the university meet the demand of laid-off service workers, standing in solidarity with other labor unions on campus.
Northwestern did not meet these demands, merely extending the milestone deadlines for graduate students without extending funding or providing other material support. The failure of the university to listen to the advocacy of NUGW and many other graduate worker groups underscored the importance of pursuing the path of formal unionization and collective bargaining.
International Student Fee Campaign Win
In August 2018, the Trump Administration’s Department of Homeland Security enacted stricter immigration requirements affecting international students. In September, Northwestern’s International Office (IO) informed international graduate workers that they would be required to pay a new annual fee of $50 for software to help the IO comply with the federal government. Consistent with our belief that the international student community should not be targeted by Northwestern to shoulder the burden of these costs, NUGW circulated a petition against the decision, which we submitted in October with over 600 signatures. By December 2018, the University had refunded the fee.
DMA Continuation Fee Campaign Win
In the Bienen School of Music, there are two different types of doctoral programs—PhDs and DMAs (doctorate of musical arts). For bureaucratic reasons, PhD candidates are in TGS, while DMA candidates are not. Though the coursework and teaching requirements are similar, the differences between the two programs have significant funding and benefit consequences. At the time of our DMA continuation fee campaign in Fall 2017, DMA graduate workers were charged exorbitant continuation fees, which started at over $1000 in their first year and increased by more than $1000 each additional year. This fee was many times more than that of comparable music programs and TGS itself (around $150 per quarter).
DMA candidates had raised this as a concern for many years, only for Bienen to claim that this fee was meant to encourage DMA candidates to graduate on time. In February 2018, DMA candidates who were also NUGW members put together a petition, highlighting the disparity relative to peer institutions. In the face of this organizing, Bienen capitulated immediately and made the continuation fees “reasonable” beginning in Fall 2018.
Full Five Campaign Win
Our first major campaign and win concerned summer funding for rising 6th year graduate workers. Many of us had assurances when we were first accepted to Northwestern, often from our director of graduate studies, that we would have five years of funding, with potential for further funding. However, fifth-year students who did take longer to graduate found out in the spring quarter that they would not receive a stipend for the summer quarter, even if they had banked quarters for the following year. Before our advocacy, Northwestern had actually only guaranteed 19 quarters of funding—failing to provide a “full five” years of funding (20 quarters) to cover the final summer quarter.
As with many issues, this lack of funding disproportionately impacted students who do not have family support or international students, who had to renew their visas and show their bank account statements to prove that they had enough to support themselves without a paycheck from the university. A historical note: many graduate workers and GLAC had been pushing for full five funding for years to no avail. NUGW gathered hundreds of signatures on a Full Five petition and planned a rally for April 25, 2017; on April 18, the university announced full five years of guaranteed funding for doctoral candidates, applicable immediately.
End of Recognition Campaign, Transition to Issue-Based Campaigns
After the 2016 election, many graduate union drives paused to determine what the landscape would look like under an anti-union NLRB. NUGW pivoted towards issue-based organizing in the meantime as we continued building a grassroots infrastructure across campus. We recognized that the new NLRB would likely be hostile to graduate unionization, and fighting for specific issues could lead to material benefits to current graduate workers.
NUGW Constitution & Bylaws Adopted
Start of Recognition Campaign
Because both AFT and SEIU were actively campaigning on campus, even after the affiliation vote, graduate activists and organizers from both camps collected membership and authorization cards in Fall 2016. The threshold to trigger an NLRB election is that one entity needs to file a petition with the NLRB with at least 30% of the bargaining unit in support of an election with that union (one person cannot sign authorization cards with both AFT and SEIU). To prevent SEIU from filing first, NUGW members and AFT organizers actively solicited cards for a recognition campaign. While we collected many membership and authorization cards, the signatures expired and we were not able to reach the 30% that could trigger the NLRB election.
NUGW-AFT Affiliation Vote & Negotiations
After the Columbia decision, both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) started organizing on campus. NUGW asked both unions for affiliation proposals with the plan of holding an affiliation vote among members. NUGW hosted a debate between AFT and SEIU leadership to help members decide who they would prefer affiliating with. Both unions presented their case at the debate, but only AFT provided an affiliation proposal. At this point, NUGW proposed amendments to AFT’s proposal, which aimed to codify the democratic autonomy of the union. A vote was held to decide between affiliating with AFT and remaining independent. After voting to affiliate, the NUGW bargaining committee held affiliation negotiations with AFT, in which most amendments were accepted. The membership accepted the amended changes and determined that affiliation should move forward. At that point AFT assigned organizers to NUGW’s recognition campaign.
NUGW was founded in September 2016 by a group of Northwestern graduate workers, about a month after the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) Columbia decision, which confirmed that graduate workers at private universities are employees, and therefore can form labor unions. With a name and an email list, NUGW was born. Our first public meetings were held in the Evanston Public Library.