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Princeton’s postdoctoral researchers and scholars voted in favor of forming a union while graduate student workers declined unionization in separate elections held on campus in May.

Nearly 85% of the 573 postdocs who voted supported their union (484-89), according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The new union, Princeton University Postdocs and Scholars-UAW (PUPS-UAW), is affiliated with the United Auto Workers. 

Graduate student voters rejected a proposed union with 63% of votes cast against it (652-391), according to the NLRB. Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU) intended to affiliate with the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE). About half of Princeton graduate students — those with the titles “assistant in instruction” or “assistant in research,” primarily in the natural sciences and engineering — were eligible to vote, under an agreement negotiated by the University and UE.

“At Princeton, graduate student voices matter and we appreciate the concerns raised during the campaign,” Dean of the Graduate School Rodney Priestley wrote in a statement to PAW. “We look forward to finding opportunities to continue to strengthen our partnership with students to enhance the student experience and advance Princeton graduate education … .”

The postdoc vote was awaiting NLRB certification when this issue went to press. “Once certified, we will move forward in good faith to engage constructively with the union to support all postdocs and associate research scholars at Princeton,” Dean of the Faculty Gene Jarrett ’97 wrote in a May 9 message to postdocs. 

Jessica Ng, a postdoctoral research associate at the High Meadows Environmental Institute, told PAW that PUPS-UAW will collect input to prepare for negotiating its first contract. “Many, many postdocs have put in a lot of time, effort, thought, and creativity to get here,” Ng said. “We know there’s a lot more to come, and we’re excited to be taking the next steps.”

The University has approved significant raises in compensation for graduate students and postdocs in recent years. Graduate stipends jumped by 25% before the 2022-23 academic year, with 5% and 4.3% raises approved in the two budget years since. In January 2023, Princeton announced that all postdoctoral scholars would receive a minimum full-time salary of $65,000, which at the time was nearly a 20% increase over the federally required minimum.

The Princeton graduate student vote was a rare defeat for labor organizing in higher education, which has seen “a massive upsurge” in recent years, according to Rebecca Kolins Givan, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University. 

Since 2022, graduate students have successfully approved unions at several of Princeton’s peers, including Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, MIT, Stanford, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale. Not having a union, Givan said, could be a competitive disadvantage for Princeton when recruiting prospective students who favor unionization. “There’s a general mood and awareness, especially among younger, highly educated workers, that organizing collectively is … a way to push back against inequality,” she said.

The University currently has contracts with six employee unions, representing about 1,000 staff members in areas such as facilities, dining, public safety, and parts of the library. 

PGSU’s push for unionization began in 2016 and picked up significantly in 2023, but the group ultimately failed to schedule a vote before the 2022-23 academic year ended. Some supporters graduated, so the group had to revive its effort to collect signatures that signaled support for a union. This year’s vote took place May 13 and 14, in the final week of the academic calendar.

For postdocs, the drive for a union materialized more quickly. In January 2023, postdocs read a petition, signed by more than 400 potential union members, on the steps of Nassau Hall. PUPS-UAW filed for an election in April 2024, less than 15 months later.