“For us, unionization is not the go-to choice” — GSG president Mircea Davidescu
Frank Wojciechowski

Princeton and eight peer schools filed an amicus brief Feb. 29 in a case in which Columbia University graduate teaching assistants have asked the National Labor Relations Board to allow them to form a union and bargain collectively. Princeton and its peers said that because graduate students’ research and teaching is part of their academic experience, “the market value of any teaching services provided by doctoral candidates is not taken into consideration when determining stipends.”

Graduate students at many public universities, which are governed by laws in their states, have unions. In 2004, a group of Brown University students first asked the NLRB to consider the unionization issue at a private university. The NLRB ruled that because collective bargaining and arbitration “clearly have the potential to transform the collaborative model of graduate education to one of conflict and tension,” graduate students at private institutions do not have that right. Princeton and the eight other schools — six Ivies, MIT, and Stanford — say that because this has not changed, private universities should “treat student assistantships as educational, not economic, opportunities.” Their brief argues that if a union were to form, grad students could file complaints that affect how professors structure their courses, intruding on academic freedom.

While graduate students have been pushing for unionization at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, the situation is different at Princeton, said newly elected Graduate Student Government president Mircea Davidescu, a fourth-year student in ecology and evolutionary biology. “Things in general are pretty good,” Davidescu said. “I think for us, unionization is not the go-to choice — it’s more of a last resort.”

But the GSG expressed concern that it had not been notified by the University of the amicus filing. There is “real anger among graduate students over the brief and its contents,” especially the argument that imposing collective bargaining would impinge on academic freedom, said David Walsh, a grad student who is chairing a committee created by the GSG in response to Princeton’s action.

“There are concerns over a lack of transparency and a feeling of graduate-student marginalization in University decision-making among the graduate-student body,” Walsh said in an email. “Whether unionization is the appropriate course of action is ultimately up to the graduate students themselves.”