What is a union?

What is NUGW?

The Northwestern University Graduate Workers is a union of graduate students seeking recognition from the university and the right to bargain collectively for an employment contract. This contract can cover funding, access to healthcare, leave policies, harassment and discrimination protections, and much more. To see our guiding principles, check out our mission statement that was adopted after a successful referendum vote in May of 2020.

Who runs the union?

The graduate workers do! NUGW is fundamentally democratic, so if you are a member you may vote in elections, run for office, join a working committee and attend organizing committee meetings. Email nugraduateworkers@gmail.com if you would like to get more involved!

What are the long-term goals of NUGW?

We want to increase the graduate stipend, extend funding timelines, improve access to health care (including for mental health), formalize/reinforce procedures for reporting abuse by faculty members, obtain paid family leave, and, most importantly, consolidate these gains by gaining official recognition for the university and writing them into a collectively negotiated contract.

What are the short-term goals?

At any point, we attempt to identify the most pressing issues on campus and campaign for immediate improvement to the conditions of graduate workers. Past and current examples include improvements to the status of music doctoral students, preservation of current mental health insurance co-payments, guaranteed fifth-year summer funding, and guaranteed sixth-year funding.

If I join the union, do I have to pay dues?

At the moment, there is no due structure for NUGW. While there may, at some point, be mandatory dues, such dues will most likely come after gaining official recognition by the university and negotiating a contract. This means that they will almost certainly be offset by negotiated increases to the stipend. Any contract would be voted on by NUGW members before taking effect.

Do other universities have graduate employee unions?

Graduate employee unions have existed for over fifty years, and they are in place at both private and public universities. Recently, graduate workers at peer institutions of Northwestern such as Harvard, Georgetown, and Brown University have all won pay raises, reduced costs of insurance, and new grievance procedures through their union contracts. In the Chicago region alone, UIC has a union and UChicago and Loyola have ongoing union campaigns. 


What is a union contract or a Collective Bargaining Agreement?

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 membership ratifies the final contract it will become the official rules by which the administration and grads operate.

How do we win our union?

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’s appointees to the labor board are anti-union, 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, graduate workers across the US are fighting to win their unions by acting like unions. We are taking on issues, winning improvements, and when we reach a critical mass of support we can win voluntary recognition from our administration.

Are there any risks to unionizing?

As an international student here on a visa, are there any potential repercussions for joining a union?

It is not unheard of for administrations to threaten international students with visa repercussions, since these students are often more vulnerable than American citizens and hence easier to intimidate. However, international students have the same rights to be involved in union activities as U.S. citizens do, and it is illegal for the administration to retaliate for this involvement. International students have been participating in union activities, including strikes, for decades with no known negative consequences for their visas; indeed, these students have been crucial to recent victories won by grad unions (https://www.labornotes.org/2019/04/international-student-workers-key-chicago-grad-strike-victory). 

International students do, however, face unique challenges throughout their graduate careers. The Trump administration’s targeted crackdown on immigration has deeply affected graduate student communities at Northwestern and elsewhere, either by preventing them from entering the country or by stranding them here for years, unable to visit their families. In addition, the limited access to funding beyond the fifth year poses a unique challenge to international students who are in many cases unable to take on supplementary work off campus. NUGW is committed to fighting for the rights of international students, and to help secure the funding necessary for all NU graduate students to successfully complete their programs.

In 2018, our advocacy for international students helped counter an attempt by the administration to impose an additional $50 fee on international students. The fee was intended to fund software facilitating reporting of student visa information to the federal government. While the administration was not required to implement this software, it chose to do so voluntarily, thus exposing international students at NU to unnecessary danger while also making them pay for it (https://dailynorthwestern.com/2018/11/16/campus/new-technology-fee-for-international-students-triggers-intense-backlash/). Due in large part to the involvement of NUGW, the fee was eventually dropped. Cases like this make it clear that the administration does not have the best interests of its international students in mind and that unionization is not a risk to those students but rather an enormous asset.

Could unionization negatively affect my stipends or benefits?

A union contract sets floors, not ceilings, on stipends and benefits. The data across industries shows that those floors are higher on average for unionized workers than non-unionized, including graduate students. If your department or funding source pays more than the minimum that is negotiated in a contract, you will still be able to collect the additional pay and benefits. Many contracts even include “maintenance of benefits” contracts that stipulate that workers may not earn less than they did prior to having a contract. 

Do the union’s goals differ from those of students?

While anti-union administrators like to invoke the image of bureaucratic institutions out of touch with the cherished customs of a workplace, this is really not how unions work at all. NUGW is run by and for students, so our goals are the students’ goals! We’re only limited by the amount of contact we have with the student body at large, so get in touch if you have concerns.  

Will a union negatively impact the relationship I have with my advisor?

The evidence we have from studies comparing unionized to non-unionized schools suggests that unions actually improve the relationship between graduate workers and faculty by offering greater support and more transparent grievance handling for the workers.