Graduate Student Unionization FAQs: General Information

General Information about Unions


Q: What is a union?

A union is an organized association of workers representing and advocating for employees on matters of hours, benefits, and working conditions. Unions also represent their members when disputes arise over contracts governing their work. Often unions use their resources to participate at the state and federal level in lobbying to influence legislation and in political campaigns.

In August 2016, in a decision involving Columbia University, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) reversed prior decisions and ruled that students (both undergraduates and graduate students) who serve in compensated teaching and research capacities at private universities are considered employees for the purposes of collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Under the Columbia decision, if eligible students at Harvard vote to be represented by a union, Harvard would be obligated to bargain exclusively with that union on matters related to employment for all students in the bargaining unit.

Q: Who decides which union will represent them?

The people who want a union to represent them typically affiliate with an established union and move to organize a new chapter of that union and achieve certification through an NLRB election. At Harvard, a group of graduate students chose to affiliate with the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, known as the United Auto Workers, to create the Harvard Graduate Students Union-UAW (HGSU-UAW).

Q: How does a union gain recognition to represent a certain group of workers?

As a typical first step, union supporters will ask others in their workplace to sign authorization cards, which serve as a written declaration of support for that particular union to serve as their exclusive representative in negotiating terms and conditions of employment.

If union organizers collect enough cards to constitute a valid “showing of interest” among the group that the union seeks to represent (the “bargaining unit”), the union can file a representation petition with the NLRB. The NLRB will review that petition and, if the NLRB determines that the authorization cards demonstrate at least 30% support among all the employees in the proposed bargaining unit, it will process the petition and call for an election. Once the petition is filed with the Board, the authorization cards serve no further purpose.

If the union and the employer do not agree on the scope of the bargaining unit, or who will be included or excluded from the proposed unit, then the Board will resolve such matters in a hearing (either before or after an election). The next step in the process is a secret ballot election in which all those in the proposed bargaining unit—not just those who signed authorization cards—can vote on whether they want to be represented exclusively by the petitioning union.

Union Dues and Agency Fees


Q: Will I have to pay dues, even if I don’t want to join the union?

In most cases, if represented by a union, members are required to pay dues or a similar fee, referred to as an agency or representation fee. Depending on the contract, failure to pay dues could result in dismissal from a teaching or research appointment.

For example, the NYU contract with the labor union representing graduate students mandates that all union members pay either the union dues or an agency fee which is equivalent to the union dues.

Q: If students vote to unionize, how much will I pay in union dues?

There is no way to predict precisely what the dues would be for Harvard students who would be members of a labor union. The HGSU-UAW website says that UAW dues are currently 1.44% of a member’s salary

This means that a research assistant in the life sciences, for example, could pay more than $550 in union dues per year at 1.44%. However, at NYU, which is the only private university that has a contract with a graduate student union, graduate students who are members of the United Auto Workers local (GSOC-UAW) pay 2% of total compensation during a semester that they are employed in a union position (read more about the graduate student union at NYU). Dues are deducted from paychecks automatically. For a Harvard research assistant in the life sciences, a 2% dues rate would translate to $760 per year. However, no information about dues and other fees can be known until the collective bargaining process is complete.

Collective Bargaining


Q: How would a union impact my life as a student?

Students who belong to the bargaining unit would be exclusively represented by the union on any matter that involves wages, hours, or other terms and conditions of employment. Under the NLRA, employers and unions bargain collectively with respect to “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.” The NLRB and the federal courts have broadly interpreted these concepts in the past, but not for students at private universities, so it is impossible to predict the outcome of any negotiation. The law does not specify that any particular clause, provision, or benefit must be included in a union contract. That is left to the parties to negotiate at the table. The law only requires the parties to engage in good faith negotiations.

Q: I’d like to review a proposed contract. Is that possible?

No. Union contracts are developed through a collective bargaining process that only begins once a union is voted in.

Q: Students in different Harvard Schools and in different departments within Schools have very different experiences and needs. Could exceptions be added to the negotiated contract that would recognize and accommodate my individual needs?

As a collective bargaining unit, students are considered as a group, not as individuals. Any special provision would need to be provided for in the labor contract or agreed to by the union through the collective bargaining process. Once a tentative agreement is reached, all union members have the opportunity to vote on the contract. If at least 50% of those who vote approve it, the contract is binding for all.

Q: If I object to a provision in the contract that is negotiated, do I have to abide by that provision?

Yes. Collective bargaining is just that, collective. The union would represent all students determined to be in the bargaining unit and the provisions in whatever contract they negotiate will apply to all. Any exceptions would need to be explicitly stated in the contract or negotiated with the union. Any collective bargaining agreement must be ratified by more than 50% of the members. Once in effect, all members are bound by provisions in the agreement.

Q: I have taught sporadically during my time as a student. Does that mean I would be in the union?

If you hold a position deemed to be part of the proposed bargaining unit, you become a member of the bargaining unit during the time you hold that position (unless the contract specifies otherwise). This means that students who serve in teaching and research roles would likely cycle in and out of the bargaining unit as they take on or complete these roles.

Q: Can the union bargain for everything and anything, including areas that fall outside my duties as a teaching fellow or research assistant?

Under the NLRA, employers and unions are required to bargain collectively on “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.” These are called “mandatory subjects” of bargaining. Because students at private universities were previously ineligible to unionize, no precedent exists for what else may be bargained for.

Q: Can the union increase stipends and/or improve my benefits?

There are no guarantees. Stipends and benefits, for example, might become the subject of collective bargaining and negotiation to the extent that they are part of employment terms and conditions (as opposed to academic matters), but there is no way of knowing now whether or how current stipends and benefits might change.

Currently NYU is the only private university that has a contract with a graduate student union (GSOC-UAW). They negotiated an increase in annual pay raises for research assistants of 2.5% from 2.25%, and teaching assistants’ pay is contractually guaranteed to be “no less than” pay for adjunct faculty. Union members at NYU pay union dues of 2% of total compensation during a semester that they are employed in a union position (read more about the graduate student union at NYU).

Q: Can the union dictate the number of hours I can work as a graduate research assistant in the sciences, if I am considered part of the bargaining unit?

Hours of work could be a subject of bargaining. There is no precedent for how issues surrounding work hours could be handled because graduate research assistants in the sciences in private universities are not included in the NYU bargaining unit. However, it is important to note that the law does not require particular provisions to be included in a union contract.

Q: Could the amount and allocation of student fees be subject to negotiation?

Because these fees are charged to all students—undergraduates and graduate students, whether they are conducting research or teaching—the fees might not be considered to be part of the “terms and conditions of employment” and therefore might not be part of the bargaining process.

Q: Could a union contract affect the research activities I engage in outside of Harvard, which are an important part of my academic program? For example, if I attend conferences or workshops, or conduct field work or research at other universities?

If these activities are considered part of the working conditions of a research assistant or teaching fellow, they could be subject to negotiation.

Q: I know that student unions exist at other institutions. What makes Harvard different?

Graduate student unions exist at many public universities across the country, with differing contracts and bargaining units because different laws govern private and public universities. Public universities are governed by state labor laws, which tend to limit the subjects that can be negotiated. Harvard, like other private employers, is governed by the federal law known as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA requires bargaining over wages, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment, and permits (but does not require) bargaining on other topics. As noted above, no precedent exists for determining the terms and conditions of employment for students at private universities, whose teaching and research are part of their academic training. Since the NLRB issued the Columbia decision in August 2016, elections have been held at a number of universities, and bargaining is underway at some.

At most public institutions strikes are illegal under state law. However, under the National Labor Relations Act, strikes are legal and may be called by a union if negotiations break down at the table.

Q: What other universities currently have a contract with a student labor union?

New York University is the only private university that has negotiated a contract with a student labor union (read more about the graduate student union at NYU). Students at several other private universities have recently voted to unionize, but these groups have not yet gone through the process of negotiating a contract with their institutions. While a number of state universities have experience with unions representing their students, state laws provide guidelines regarding what can and cannot be negotiated in union contracts in those instances. Because private universities are governed by federal law, the same state-level guidelines and restrictions do not apply.

More Information


Q: Where can I find more information about what union representation would mean for me?

Varying opinions exist regarding student unionization. In addition to reviewing the information contained in this FAQ, you can speak with other students, staff, or faculty. You can read opinions for and against unionization published prior to the November 2016 election in the News section of the Student Unionization page on the Office of the Provost website. You can also visit the HGSU-UAW’s website or Facebook page or speak to one of the union’s representatives, or you can visit Graduate Student Unionization: A Critical Approache or Against HGSU-UAW Facebook page.