Q: What is a union?
A: GENU-UAW is an organization of student workers joining together to build power, create a democratic workplace, negotiate improvements to our working conditions, and secure our benefits in a binding contract that cannot be unilaterally changed by the university administration.
Q: What benefits and protections can we achieve through collective bargaining?
A: Winning a contract through collective bargaining means having a legally enforceable document that guarantees our conditions of employment. Those benefits cannot be changed unilaterally by the university without negotiating with our union. Here are some examples of what other student workers have won with a union contract:
- Annual, across-the-board stipend increases and timely payments.
- Enhanced dental, vision, and mental health insurance (including lower co-pays for services and prescriptions).
- Improved family benefits, including health coverage for dependents, child-care subsidies and paid maternity leave.
- Workload protections for hours worked, vacation, and leave, so that students are free to teach or research as many hours as they choose without being unfairly pressured.
- Subsidized public transportation services, parking, and housing.
- Protections against discrimination, sexual harassment, and assault.
- Fair and transparent grievance procedures.
- Improved disability access and resources for people of color.
- Protections for international graduate workers.
Q: Why the United Auto Workers?
A: Student workers typically choose to organize with a larger labor union, such as the United Automobile Workers (UAW). The UAW began as an auto workers union in the 1930s, but in recent decades workers in service industries and nonprofits, as well as teaching, administrative, and research staff at numerous universities, have joined as well. The UAW now represents more than 60,000 academic workers across the US, including student workers at NYU, the University of California system, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Connecticut, and the University of Washington. By organizing with the UAW, we become full voting members of this larger union and gain access to its experience with student workers and its significant resources. We also join the millions of unionized workers across the country who make up the American labor movement. All these strengths help us build the strongest possible union and win the best possible contract.
Q: Will I have to pay union dues? How much do I pay?
A: Members pay dues to pay for staff, experts and other resources that make sure we can negotiate a strong contract with the administration and enforce it effectively. However, we pay no dues until we have ratified our first contract. This means that we won’t pay anything until we see benefit gains first.
UAW dues are 1.44% of gross income from the work covered by our contract, and will only be paid by those members employed as TAs, RAs, or in other positions covered by the union contract. Some union locals, like the local in which NYU’s student employees are members, choose to pay a higher dues rate if they feel they need the extra resources. Any rate higher than the UAW standard must be voted on by local membership.
Typically all workers in a bargaining unit are required to pay dues or some type of agency fee. All workers will benefit from the same union contract, and the union is obligated to represent all workers and enforce the contract on their behalf, regardless of membership.
Q: Would a union level stipends? Do I risk having mine lowered to match those below me?
A: No. Collective bargaining at other universities has never produced that result. Ultimately, we are going to be the ones sitting with the administration and negotiating our contract, which we would then all vote on.
At the University of Washington a variable pay system existed before the contract and continues under the contract. Under that system, there are minimum pay rates that all departments must follow, but departments are free to pay higher rates. Graduate workers at UW democratically chose to preserve that system, and, while those at the lower pay rates have experienced larger increases, everyone’s pay has gone up after unionization.
In another example, under the first contract at NYU, the minimum stipends for the poorest paid workers went up 38% over 4 years, while the small number of people above the minimum got at least a 15% raise over 4 years. Again, no one took a pay cut.
A slightly different example is UConn, where graduate assistants had the same pay rates before unionization and the contract raised all those by 3% per year (in addition to significant increases in fee waivers that are worth an additional 3.2 to 7.6 percent wage increase, depending on FTE and academic standing) and ensures additional step increases based on academic progress.
In all cases, these guaranteed gains were larger than the small percentage in membership dues, which is why these contracts were overwhelmingly ratified.
Q: How will having a union contract provide protections?
A: A fair grievance procedure, which usually includes the option of taking unresolved disputes to a neutral third party arbitrator, is critical to enforcing any rights under the contract. Without this, the University can continue to decide on its own whether to “follow the rules.” It is especially critical on issues like sexual harassment, where universities have existing policies but the enforcement mechanisms are highly ineffective and one-sided. The union at the University of Washington has a great summary of the ways RAs and TAs have benefited from enforcing their rights through the grievance procedure.
Q: How is a union different from the Graduate Student Government or other student governments?
A: Student governments represent and support Northeastern students as students: they fund student groups, give travel funding for conferences sourced from student fees, and sponsor events. However, these groups are not labor organizations: they have no power to negotiate a binding contract on behalf of student workers, and the administration is under no obligation to act on any recommendations or requests that the student government might make.
Q: If the union wins more benefits for student employees, won’t Northeastern have to make more cuts elsewhere?
A: There is no record of cuts being made as a result of unionization at any of the many universities where graduates have exercised their right to collective bargaining. More importantly: as students at Northeastern, we want Northeastern to continue to excel. A union will help us ensure it does so by giving us a real role in setting the university’s institutional priorities and in helping to determine where its resources go. During bargaining, we’ll get to question the university’s spending and demand that graduate workers be made a priority. Currently, decisions about how to spend that money are made in secret, without the input of the graduate teachers and researchers who keep Northeastern running. With a union, we’ll be able to have a real conversation with the administration about how the university’s money should be budgeted and make informed decisions about what benefits we want to push for.
Q: Will I have to go on strike? Will it negatively impact the progress of my research?
A: 98% of union contracts are reached without a strike. Although it is rarely necessary, striking is an important and powerful last resort when an employer persistently refuses to negotiate in good faith. When other options for bringing an employer to the bargaining table have been exhausted, a strike is a powerful way to remind employers and the public of the importance of our work. Members of the union will, by voting, decide if a strike is necessary. Under the UAW constitution, 2/3 of those participating in a strike authorization vote must vote in favor of a strike in order to authorize the union to call one. While a strike is most effective when we all stand together, it is up to individual members whether to go on strike, and the UAW does not fine members who do not participate.
Nearly every contract in the country has a no strike, no lockout provision that applies during the term of the contract. This means that the workers and management agree that this contract is acceptable, and they agree to a methodology within the contract to handle grievances, replacing the need for a strike. If the contract expires before a new contract is negotiated, these provisions are no longer applicable.
Strikes may include both teachings and research assistants. At the University of Washington’s student worker union, for instance, RAs fortunately have not had to strike, but several times they have begun preparations for a strike to achieve a fair contract. As part of such preparations, RAs engaged in discussions to figure out how best to participate in a strike without damaging their own academic progress. If the members of our union were to democratically contemplate a strike one day, we would sort through the same set of issues as well.
Q: I feel like my working conditions are pretty good. Why do I need a union?
A: Many student employees are happy with aspects of our working conditions and benefits right now. But because we don’t have a contract, the administration can change the policies that affect us at any time, without consulting student employees, and without giving us any recourse. Without a union, we have no security and no seat at the table when decisions affecting our lives and work are made by administrators. With a union we get to negotiate a contract that will protect the benefits we like and secure improvements in areas where we would like to see progress.
Q: How will unionization affect my relationship with my advisor/PI?
A: In the decades during which student workers at campuses across the country have had unions, there’s been no evidence that collective bargaining has a negative impact on relationships between students and their advisors. Peer-reviewed studies have suggested positive effects for grad unions on student/faculty relationships. By giving graduate students real power and a direct channel to the administration, our union will allow our advisors to focus on research and mentoring their graduate students rather than on dealing with employment issues like health care, timely payment, and parental leave. Our union will allow us to join the faculty holding administrators accountable and prioritizing the university’s core mission of research, scholarship, and teaching. No graduate employee would support contract provisions that might harm the work or research of our PIs. Our bargaining surveys set our priorities, and all union members get to ratify our bargaining agenda. Our union’s democratic process ensures that our contract will protect both our interests and the research of our PIs and labs. Academic success and a thriving research enterprise are top priorities for all graduate employees, and we can make sure we negotiate a contract that reflects our priorities.
Q: I’m a master’s student worker. Am I eligible to join the union? Why should I join when I’m only at Northeastern for a year or two?
A: Yes! If you are teaching or working as a research assistant, you are eligible to join the union. While you are here for a shorter period of time, master’s student-workers face similar concerns while working that doctoral students face. For example, master’s student-workers have raised concerns around workload protections, inadequate teaching training, and a lack of a robust grievance procedure should the need arise. By joining the union, you add your voice to such issues, protect the benefits you like in a contract, and build power by joining a larger community here at Northeastern working to create a more democratic workplace.
Q: Can international students participate in the union?
A: Yes! Anyone working in the United States has the right to join a union. Visa requirements in no way compromise your right to belong to a union that represents you in a U.S. workplace. In fact, international graduate student workers have played a central role in organizing and leading unions at more than 60 university campuses across the US, and no graduate employee union has reported any complications among their member employees who are also international students. If anything, international students face particular vulnerabilities that can be best addressed through a union, such as the protections of a grievance procedure.
Q: Are there examples of department-specific language in grad union contracts?
A: Yes! One example is the University of Washington contract, which incorporates a wide range of varying departmental pay rates for RAs and TAs. Members have always democratically decided to maintain those varying rates, and while the lowest rates have received larger increases over the years, all departmental pay rates have guaranteed annual pay increases under the contract.
However, because RAs and TAs have much more in common than not, most contracts do not include many department-specific provisions. Most contract provisions are written in a way that ensures minimum standards, such as access to paid time off, but allows departments to go above and beyond if they want. Another example would be the NYU contract language on letters of appointment, which requires certain pieces of information in all departments but “may also set forth such other relevant terms and conditions as may be established by the Department or Program.”
Q: Does this mean you can only approach department administrators through the union?
A: Most grievances start with a meeting with the supervisor to try to resolve a complaint in an informal manner. Only when the supervisor refuses to fix a problem does it necessitate filing a formal grievance. This allows the university to remain flexible, while simultaneously giving student workers the ability to protect themselves from contract violations.
Q: With so many diverse programs, how can we be sure the bargaining committee will represent all RAs and TAs?
A: First, and most importantly, RAs and TAs share many common interests. For example, health care, family benefits, pay increases, protection against discrimination and sexual harassment, time off for vacation or other reasons, tuition and fee waivers, timely payment for work performed, protection against last-minute loss of appointments, international student rights, and a fair grievance procedure affect RAs and TAs all across campus and are typically central issues in contract negotiations regardless of who is on the bargaining committee.
Second, RAs and TAs will get to vote democratically to approve not only the initial bargaining goals prior to negotiations but also the final contract negotiated by the committee, which encourages democratic accountability. In the recent University of California postdoc contract campaign, a majority of all 6,200 postdocs voted in favor of the bargaining committee’s initial demands, which were based on extensive surveys, and voted to accept the final contract.
In electing our bargaining committee, we plan to follow the example of other graduate unions in the UAW that have tended to balance a need for a committee that is manageable in size and still representative of discipline, job title, etc. At NYU and UConn, several meetings were held soon after official union recognition to work out the size of the bargaining committee. At UConn, they ended up electing six committee members who came from Engineering, Sciences, Humanities, Social Sciences and Education, all the major disciplines on campus. The contract they negotiated increased stipends; resulted in a new, and significantly improved, healthcare program; improved workload protections; reduced fees; included protections from discrimination; and, included provisions for job security. When the final agreement was put to a vote, the majority of the membership participated and the vote was overwhelming – 99% voted in favor of the contract.
We will do the same—soon after the election, we will hold meetings to determine the size and composition of the committee. While we have examples from other universities, we will have to figure out what will work best at Northeastern..
Q: What have student workers achieved at other universities?
A: In March 2015, GSOC-UAW at NYU ratified a new contract with 99% approval. Their gains include a 4% wage increase with annual minimum increases, matriculation and other fees waived for student employees, a 90% subsidy for individual health care coverage, free dental insurance, a family healthcare fund that will rise to $200,000, and a tax-free childcare fund that will rise to $100,000.
In April 2015, the GEU-UAW at the University of Connecticut won their first contract with 99% voter approval. Their gains include a 9.3% compound wage increase over three years, restored access to state employee health benefits that were taken away in 2003, and nearly $900 per year in mandatory fee waivers (almost a 5% additional wage increase) as well as travel reimbursement, child care subsidies and six weeks of paid maternity leave.
In May 2015, graduate workers at the University of Washington won a contract guaranteeing child care subsidy increases, tuition and fee waivers, minimum annual wage increases, and workload protections for hourly employees. Collective bargaining has won major gains over the past decade, including no cuts in health care since 2004 despite the cost of the plan increasing almost 50%.
After an eight-day strike in 2014 (the first in 38 years), the University of Oregon Graduate Teaching Fellows won a contract with a 10% wage increase, two weeks of paid family or medical leave, and a $150,000 “hardship fund” awarding grants for family and medical emergencies. In October they vote to ratify a new three-year contract awarding 10.7% wage increases and paid employment training.
In 2014, the student-workers union at the University of California ratified a new contract that won a two-week increase in paid leave for childbirth (enabling a full three-month benefited maternity leave on quarter campuses, so mothers don’t have to take quarters off with no pay or benefits), a 50% increase in child care subsidies, 17% compounded wage increases over four years, new protections for workload intensity, undocumented students, and gender inclusivity, and full remission of tuition and registration fees for union members.
Since 2007, Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago have campaigned for and won a doubling of teaching assistant salaries, better standards of care at the Student Care Center, and the right for students on parental leave to retain their student status, allowing the retention of visa status, health insurance, and access to university facilities.