NUGW is an antiracist, feminist labor union fighting for better working and living conditions for all graduate workers at Northwestern that is building power every day across the university. 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 graduate students, particularly Black, Indigenous, POC, queer, trans, undocumented, low-income, first-generation, parenting students and students living with disabilities or chronic illnesses. Towards this end, we are continuing the fight for recognition that graduate workers are employees, for necessary improvements to our working conditions, including a guaranteed six years of funding and police abolition. 

     Join us here:

NUGW Founding & Early Years

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 could form labor unions. With a name and an email list, NUGW was born. Our first public meetings were held in the Evanston Public Library. 

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 the membership. 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 at codifying the democratic autonomy of the union. A vote was held to decide between affiliating with AFT according to the amended proposal and remaining independent. After voting to affiliate with the AFT, the NUGW bargaining committee held affiliation negotiations with AFT, in which most amendments were accepted. The membership determined that the agreed upon proposal was consistent with the original that it had voted on, and that it should enter into force as terms of affiliation. At that point AFT assigned organizers to NUGW’s 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). Typically, an AFT-affiliated campaign would build grassroots support through issue campaigns, and then move towards collecting cards. AFT campaigns also aim to collect cards from 50-60% of the unit, as this level of support would indicate enough votes for a successful election. 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.

In Spring 2017, NUGW pivoted towards issue-based organizing, since many cards collected were set to expire (it was unclear if they were valid for 6 months or 1 year) and SEIU focused on their non-tenure track faculty union drive. We recognized that the new NLRB would likely be hostile to graduate unionization, and fighting for specific issues would lead to material benefits to current graduate workers. See the big wins section for some of our issue campaigns and wins.

In late Spring 2018, after we had pursued our membership drive for over a year, we had still not met the necessary campaign benchmarks. It had now become clear that we would be unable to win, or even trigger, an NLRB election in the near future. At this point, AFT unilaterally informed us that they would no longer consider our campaign an active campaign, and would thus withdraw the staff and other resources they had provided until that point. As an alternative, they proposed that NUGW join AFT’s newly-formed Associate Membership Program (AFTA), which would allow us to maintain minimal support from AFT while pursuing our own campaign with greater autonomy. At this point, cognizant of our position of weakness, members of the OC decided we had little choice but to accept AFT’s unilateral proposal. While the staffing and resources provided by AFTA were significantly lower than that provided during our active campaign, the immediate alternative was the loss of all resources, a scenario we sought to avoid. In June 2018, a near unanimous majority of the OC voted to join AFTA’s Associate Membership Program. 

NUGW Today

During the academic year 2019 – 2020, NUGW grew tremendously. We launched a new membership system, formalized our decision-making and operating procedures, created and filled seven elected officer positions, trained department organizers, revised our mission statement, led multiple actions in support of graduate workers struggling during a pandemic, built coalitions with undergraduate organizations to abolish police, protect international students, and support vulnerable service workers, and transformed what was still a relatively amorphous though powerful and promising effort into a full fledged organization dedicated to protecting the rights and interests of all graduate workers. Today, Northwestern administrators have no choice but to contend with us (though they will never admit it) thanks to the tireless efforts of our members, department organizers, and officers.

Big Wins

1. Full Five

Our first major campaign and win concerned summer finding 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. Reading our acceptance carefully, 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 disportionately 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, and this fell on deaf ears. 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.

2. DMA Fees

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, this has 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 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. DMAs still don’t get health insurance beyond coursework, and when they teach, they are not paid the TGS stipend, but given contracts as adjuncts. However, DMA students were pleased with substantial reduction in continuation fees.

3. International Student Fees

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. 

4. Paid Medical Leave

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 include: 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. 


  • September 2016: NUGW Founded
  • November 2016: NUGW-AFT Affiliation Vote & Negotiations
  • December 2016: Start of Recognition Campaign
  • February 2017: NUGW Constitution & Bylaws Adopted
  • March 2017: End of Recognition Campaign, Transition to Issue-Based Campaigns
  • April 2017: Full Five Campaign Win
  • February 2018: DMA Continuation Fee Campaign Win
  • December 2018: International Student Fee Campaign Win
  • May 2019: 6YF March for a Guarantee 
  • June 2020: COVID-19 Sick Out
  • August 2020: Paid Medical Leave Campaign Win