Join Login


Kevin Carriere

Georgetown University


United Together: A Guide to Grad Unions

In 2016, The National Relations Labor Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate workers at private universities had the right to form unions. Since then, many private universities have won elections, including Boston College, University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia University.

But Administrations have refused to bargain with these graduate unions. And so, schools such as the University of Chicago (Thorp, 2018) and the University of Pennsylvania (Suh & Tan, 2018) have recalled their victories, claiming they will not pursue their victories through the NLRB.

So - why did they unionize, why are they pausing their efforts through legal means, and – what does that mean for the future?

A union is a collection of workers that unite to bargain for better working conditions. The difference between working conditions of a developmental psychology lab and a chemistry lab start and end at lab coats. We all have concerns of better healthcare, pay, more liberal leave policies, and more protection for those who need it most. For example, forty four percent of female graduate workers report sexual harassment (Cantor et al., 2015), and twenty two percent of female graduate workers report that sexual harassment is received from faculty members. Unionized schools have won childcare subsidies, third party mediation for sexual assault, large raises, visa and fee waivers, adult-level healthcare, and more.

Research shows that students at unionized schools have better relations with their mentors than those at non-unionized schools (Rogers, Eaton, & Voos, 2013). 28 public institutions have been unionized for many years, including some of the highest caliber schools of the nation including University of California Berkeley, University of Michigan, and University of Wisconsin.

So – talk to your colleagues. Find out their stories. Find out what could be better in both their and your lives. Then unite and demand what you deserve.

Why Have They Stopped
With all of these benefits, why would the University of Chicago not continue through conventional means? Their next step is to sue their Administration. In this hypothetical suit, the NLRB could reverse their decision, rule that graduate workers at private universities are not workers and limit all other graduate workers from unionizing across the United States.

They aren’t giving up their cause. They’ll continue to demonstrate and build community support. But what they’ve done is tied their hands for the betterment of the group. By relinquishing their democratically earned recognition, they have performed the highest level of sacrifice - to continue to allow a restriction of their rights, so that the rights of others cannot be taken away. That is the truest manifestation of a union – a constant focus on what is best for everyone.

What Does This Mean For the Future
Graduate workers are united in this together. They will continue organizing. Recently, the Presidents of four major unions signed a letter together uniting in support of graduate worker rights (Flaherty, 2018). Whether the future is inside or outside of the NLRB, individuals will still strive for better working conditions for all.


Cantor, D., Fisher, B., Chibnall, S., Townsend, R., Lee, H., Bruce, C., & Thomas, G. (2015). Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct.

Flaherty, C. (2018). Labor groups launch effort on grad student unions. Inside Higher Ed.

Rogers, S. E., Eaton, A. E., & Voos, P. B. (2013). Effects of unionization on graduate student employees: Faculty-student relations, academic freedom, and pay. ILR Review, 66(2), 487-510.

Suh, H., & Tan, R. (2018). Penn graduate students have withdrawn their petition to vote for a union. The Daily Pennsylvanian.

Thorp, A. (2018). GSU withdraws NLRB case to protect pro-grad union precedent. The Chicago Maroon.

Kevin R. Carriere is a Ph.D. Candidate at Georgetown University studying human right violations and is an active member of the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees (GAGE). |

back to menu