Why YOU should join a Grad Union
As an individual employee, you have limited leverage when negotiating with the Northwestern administration. 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, protection, and benefits for their labor.
Unions give workers a democratic voice in the workplace. When workers are organized in a union, they are able to negotiate for better wages, benefits, and working conditions with their employers.
The information below provides an overview of:
- the process of union formation
- recognition campaigns
- contract bargaining
- details about NUGW
- a summary of protections we have under the National Labor Relations Act.
Please ask any additional questions by reaching out to your department organizer and/or contacting us. Armed with this knowledge you can participate more fully and obtain a contract guaranteeing greater compensation both for yourself and graduate workers collectively.
For frequently asked questions about the upcoming election, visit the election FAQ page here.
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 democratic.
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-UE is currently engaged in a recognition campaign, with an upcoming election.
Graduate workers can pledge to vote yes to help contribute!
Collective bargaining follows 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, and to see NUGW's current campaign priorities check out our platform!
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, attend organizing committee meetings, and more.
In September 2022 NUGW voted to affiliate with United Electrical Workers (UE), a national union with staff, resources, and strategies to help NUGW achieve recognition and negotiate effectively.
NUGW maintains local, grassroots, democratic power to make decisions about what our union does. UE provides valuable expertise in financial, legal, and organizing assistance, as well as a wide network of contacts in similar campaigns, including MIT's Graduate Student Union, Indiana Universities's Graduate Workers Coalition, U-Chicago's Graduate Student Union, and John Hopkins' Teachers and Researchers United.
In Summer 2022 the affiliation committee researched a variety of national unions to consider for affiliation, and, after many interviews and presentations, voted unanimously to recommend United Electrical Workers (UE). This was then confirmed in a general referendum of NUGW members where the vast majority (>98%) voted in favor of affiliation.
The main driving factors behind this decision were:
UE is committed to rank-and-file unionism
UE is run by the rank-and-file, meaning the members run the union. Rather than implementing a top-down organizational structure where strategy, policies and finances are controlled nationally, UE operates as a federation of independent locals that make their own decisions. All resolutions and policies, including setting union dues, are voted on by members of UE locals at a bi-annual convention. This ensures a transparent dues structure, where we will have a say in dues we will pay upon securing a contract with the university and retain control over the money we collect.
UE has strong experience organizing grad workers
UE’s experience in higher education dates back to 1995 when members of COGS at the University of Iowa voted to affiliate with UE. In more recent times, UE has fully committed to organizing grad workers across the country. MIT grad workers recently won a landslide union election, and our colleagues at UChicago recently voted to join UE. Importantly, UE has shown that they are committed to hard fights by supporting grad workers in states in which state employees do not have the right to call for a union election because of anti-labor legislation like Indiana Grad Workers Coalition. As workers at a private university, our legal right to unionize is determined by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). If the NLRB were to take a stance against our right to organize, as they did during the Trump administration, we are confident that UE will not abandon us in the fight.
UE has championed social justice and equality throughout their history
UE was formed in the 1930s by independent local unions committed to uniting workers “regardless of craft, age, sex, nationality, race, creed, or political beliefs.” UE has a long history of fighting for civil rights, and in 1950 dedicated itself to ending racial discrimination in the electrical manufacturing industry. In 1945, UE demanded and won equal pay for women. A great primer on UE’s extensive history fighting for equality in the workplace was written by our comrades at MIT, and can be found here.
In short, UE’s structure and values closely match those that NUGW has developed during our time as an independent union.
NUGW-UE's current goals are explored in our campaign platform, which you can read in detail on its dedicated page.
Our current priorities are:
- Competitive Pay through Graduation Day
- Raise base stipend for all grad workers, yearly raises based on cost of living
- End the activity fee, free opt-in UPass for all campus members
- Stable funding for Year 6 and beyond
- Professional Standards in Labs & Classrooms
- Guaranteed time off and paid sick days
- Extra pay for extra work outside of standard responsibilities, including lab safety designate work or heavy teaching loads
- Transparent and easy-to-understand coverage for workplace injuries, and accommodations for disabled workers or those dealing with chronic illness
- Comprehensive Health Care
- Vision insurance and dental insurance included in NU-SHIP at no extra cost
- Insurance for dependents included in NU-SHIP at no extra cost
- No lapse in coverage during medical leave
- Support for International Students
- Legal help for immigration and visa processing
- Tax info sessions and referrals available in multiple languages
- Equal work opportunities and OPT fee subsidies
- Power & Protection in Our Workplace
- Independent processes for addressing workplace abuse, harassment, discrimination, and/or retaliation
- Work conditions negotiated collectively & transparently among graduate workers, faculty, & administration
- Protection from retaliation for workers who report scientific misconduct
NUGW-UE is engaged in an active recognition campaign, with an election expected soon. We would like to reach every graduate worker at Northwestern, inform them of our goals and strategy, and invite them to pledge vote yes in the upcoming election.
You can contribute to this goal in several ways:
Dues are not currently required to become an NUGW member. NUGW members can choose to pay voluntary dues at rates of $6, $12, or $18 per month to directly support active organizing work and help reach as many graduate workers as possible.
If you sign up to become a member you can select no-dues, or voluntary dues at any of the three levels, and at any later point can change your level of dues contribution.
Paying dues does not grant any special privileges or responsibilities within the union, but does actively support ongoing organizing.
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.
We have the chance to win a legally recognized union at Northwestern through an NLRB-facilitated election on January 10th and 11th. If a majority of votes cast in the election choose to certify NUGW-UE, then the union is legally recognized and Northwestern must engage in good-faith bargaining.
This election is one step on a longer path to unionization that has already completed several steps:
- Collect signed union cards of at least 30% of graduate workers
- Submit the cards to the NLRB to call for a certification election
- Graduate workers vote in the election run by the NLRB to decide to certify NUGW-UE or not
- If a majority of votes cast in the election choose to certify NUGW-UE, then the union is legally recognized and Northwestern must engage in good-faith bargaining
- Contract negotiation can start!
NUGW-UE collected over 2000 cards to authorize an election. If you are a graduate worker seeking to help win our upcoming election:
The stipulated election agreement (STIP) between lawyers representing NUGW-UE and Northwestern has been signed! The election will happen on Tuesday January 10th and Wednesday January 11th. View more election details here, and frequently asked questions here. You can also reach out to your department organizrs and/or email firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions.
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.
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. 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 often 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 graduate student-workers, so we represent the goals of graduate student-workers! 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.
Numerous studies show that unions actually improve the relationship between graduate workers and faculty (e.g. Hewitt, 2000; Rogers et al., 2013). Comparisons of unionized and non-unionized schools suggest that unionization offers greater support and more transparent grievance handling for the workers.
FAQ last updated: March 27th, 2023