Why YOU should join a Grad Union
When negotiating with Northwestern administration, as with any employer, you, as an employee, are negotiating without significant leverage. A union allows employees to pool their labor as a single resource and use it to gain negotiating power, which in turn allows the employees to win additional pay and benefits for their labor.
Below we provide an overview of the basic process of union formation, recognition campaigns, and contract bargaining, as well as some details about NUGW, and finally a summary of some protections we have under the National Labor Relations Act. Feel free to ask any additional questions via the Contact Us page. Armed with this knowledge you can participate more fully and obtain a contract guaranteeing greater compensation both for yourself and graduate workers collectively.
What is a union?
Unions are a tool through which a workforce, acting as a single entity, negotiates working conditions, compensation, and benefits with an employer. While an individual worker has limited negotiating leverage, a union, representing the full labor force, offers substantial leverage over the employer. This additional power allows workers to secure more substantial improvement to their workplace. Further, as unions are composed of members of the workforce, they allow workers to actively change their workplace, thus making the workplace more inherently democtratic.
Before a union can negotiate on behalf of a labor force it must be recognized as representing the laborers. This can happen in two ways: first, 30% of workers sign cards or a petition to form a union and submit it to the NLRB there will be a general referendum on union formation with a simple majority of voters deciding the result, alternatively the employer may voluntarily recognize a union as representing a majority of workers. Both processes take broad support from the workforce, so involving every worker as much as possible is essential.
NUGW is currently engaged in a recognition campaign.
Collective bargaining is when a union negotiates with an employer on behalf of the bargaining unit, the part of the labor force represented by the union. During this process the union is represented by a bargaining unit that negotiates terms with the employer’s representatives, and, after sufficient deliberation, an agreed upon draft will be sent to the rank-and-file union members for a ratification vote. In the event that a bargaining unit is unable to negotiate an acceptable contract, rank-and-file members may remove and replace them. After a contract is ratified the protections and guarantees earned by the workers will remain in place for the duration of the contract.
When 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 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 workers operate.
The NLRB is the National Labor Relations Board, an administrative agency created by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. The NLRB oversees union elections and cases can be brought before the board to investigate and remedy unfair labor practices instituted by employers. In a 2016 filing from Colombia graduate students the NLRB ruled that graduate student workers employed at private universities are entitled to protections under the National Labor Relations Act, including the right to form a union for the purposes of collective bargaining. In 2021 a proposed rule reversing this decision was withdrawn, helping to secure Northwestern graduate student’s right to form a union for the coming years.
What does NUGW do?
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to get more involved!
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.
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.
As of September 2021 all NUGW members will be required to pay dues. These dues help NUGW to cover our everyday operational expenses (website, software, supplies, event and printing costs…) in addition to any fee paid to third-party contractors including speakers, organizers, lawyers, and accountants.
The current rates are $6, $12, or $18 per month, with each member voluntarily choosing their contribution. Any member unable to pay these amounts can obtain a dues exemption and the treasurer will allocate a sponsor. In this process the member and sponsor will both remain fully anonymous to everyone except the treasurer.
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.
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 joining a union?
Yes, graduate workers are legally considered employees. According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), "student assistants" are statutory employees in that "they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated" (NLRB, 2016). In other words, if Northwestern pays you for teaching, researching, and/or any other labor, the NLRB legally considers you an employee and thus grants you the right to organize for better working conditions.
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.
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.
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.
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.