Posters, from left: Princeton Graduate Students United; Princeton Unionization Information Committee
Efforts on behalf of collective bargaining spark debate among graduate students

About nine months after the beginning of a push for union representation for Princeton graduate students, supporters say they are pleased with their progress and intend to continue their efforts in the next academic year.

The campaign has been spearheaded by members of Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU), which held its first meeting in September 2016, following a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to allow graduate students at private universities to bargain collectively. In October, Princeton graduate students voted to affiliate PGSU with the American Federation of Teachers and its state affiliate, AFT New Jersey. (Affiliation with a labor union is a preliminary step toward a possible unionization vote.) 

PGSU members say a union could advocate on issues such as compensation for teaching and could help make some University policies more transparent.

“The Graduate Student Government is forbidden in its constitution from engaging in industrial action, which means organizing a union, negotiating, and engaging in collective bargaining,” said Robert Decker, a third-year doctoral student in the French and Italian department. “PGSU represents the possibility of expanding the scope of what graduate-student leaders are able to accomplish here on campus.”

Not all students are in favor of unionization; in January, members of the Princeton Unionization Information Committee began advising against a graduate-student union. Clay Hamill, a second-year chemical engineering Ph.D. student, said the group began as a fact-checking resource for students and took a stance against unionization after researching the subject more extensively.

Hamill said he opposes a union because of concern about fees, dues, and uncertainty about what a union would be able to negotiate, among other issues. “I most vehemently oppose [a union] because of the agency fees, which require a student to pay for the union even if they do not want to join or if they voted against unionization,” he said.

The next step toward unionization would be the distribution of union authorization cards; if PGSU obtains the signatures of at least 30 percent of eligible students, then it can petition the NLRB to order an election. PGSU members declined to comment on plans to begin handing out cards. 

Grad-student unionization efforts have begun taking place at a number of universities since the NLRB ruling. In May, graduate students staged a demonstration before Yale’s commencement ceremony after university officials appealed a ruling that would allow workers to organize at the departmental level, rather than across the entire graduate-student population. At the University of Pennsylvania, students filed a petition in late May with the NLRB, seeking a union election.