Last week, the Graduate Student Government announced that it would create a committee to conduct research on graduate student unionization. The formation of the GSG committee comes in the wake of the National Labor Relations Board’s August ruling that graduate students who work on campus, such as preceptors or research assistants, have the right to unionize.
Any opinions about unionization of graduate students at Princeton must, to some extent, be speculative, given the scarcity of graduate student unions at peer institutions and the absence of a concrete unionization proposal. Nonetheless, since graduate student unionization would likely change the fabric of the University community, the committee should include considerations outside the scope of the graduate student experience. The Board urges the GSG committee to examine the broader implications of unionization on graduate students’ relationship with undergraduates, faculty, and the administration.
The GSG committee must explain the far-reaching consequences of joining a union on current and future graduate students. A decision to unionize would be momentous in that it would involve almost all graduate students. New Jersey is not a right-to-work state, which means that the University and the union could enter into an agreement to compel graduate student workers to either join the union or pay an agency fee to the union. As a result, all graduate students who work for the University, even those who would not be members of the union, may be required to pay union fees. This, in turn, would mandate that all wage increases negotiated by the union be sufficient to compensate for new union fees. The GSG committee must investigate how to structure an agreement such that graduate students would see direct benefits from these union fees.
Furthermore, decertifying a union is complicated from an administrative and legal standpoint. Current graduate students who elect to form a union will likely graduate in a few years; however, future graduate students will still be bound by their decision. It would be far more difficult for future graduate students to decertify a union than for current graduate students to certify a union.
A graduate student union could turn into an external third party that would negatively affect relations between graduate students and others in the University. The GSG committee investigating unionization should clarify whether or how a union agreement would affect more casual work done by preceptors.After all, many unions limit the amount of work that their members are allowed to put in per week. This could make it harder for a preceptor to meet with undergraduate students outside of the precept without violating union rules. While some graduate students may support such a change, this would likely mar the undergraduate experience.A one-size-fits-all policy for working hours is inadequate for Princeton’s learning environment.
In addition, the presence of a union would likely require the administration to negotiate with its graduate student union representatives. These negotiations, which could potentially include the threat of strikes, would likely result in a much higher administrative burden than having each department negotiate agreements with their own graduate students, since it would likely entail the hiring of more sophisticated negotiators for the University, and additional legal advice on labor issues.
The GSG committee should investigate how the University administration is likely to respond to the formation of a union. It is possible that under certain union agreements, the University would reduce the amount of work opportunities to compensate for higher costs. More drastically, the University could even be required to reduce the size of the graduate student body. Once again, the consideration of these outcomes is completely speculative, since there is no information on how a graduate student union would be structured. Still, the GSG committee must recognize that the University’s response could create its own set of challenges for students, and these potential responses must be considered.
The Board trusts that graduate students, as they contemplate the decision to unionize, will consider how their decision affects the University as a whole. We are heartened that GSG has decided to investigate unionization from a neutral standpoint, and we hope that their work will be productive and informative.
The Editorial Board is an independent body and decides its opinions separately from the regular staff and editors of The Daily Princetonian. The Board answers only to its Chair, the Opinion Editor, and the Editor-in-Chief.