On Oct. 18, University graduate students gathered in McCosh 62 and voted to affiliate the emergent Princeton Graduate Student Union with the American Federation of Teachers, a national union specializing in education. AFT received 77.1 percent of the vote, winning by a significant margin over the PGSU’s other option, the Service Employees International Union, a more generalized national union that emphasizes political solidarity and currently represents service workers at the University.
162 graduate students voted, which accounts for about six percent of the graduate student body population.
According to AFT’s proposal to the PGSU, the American Federation of Teachers has the advantage of focusing on education and having a significant presence in New Jersey: they have successfully organized a union at Rutgers University, consisted of full-time faculty, part-time faculty, and graduate students.
AFT also generally grants local affiliated chapters more autonomy than SEIU does and it is less inclined to have official political stances, which many students at the town hall meeting on Oct. 11 worried would alienate students with differing political beliefs from participating in PGSU.
David Walsh, a leading member in the unionization effort and a third-year student in the history department, said that ultimately the vote wasn’t strictly necessary, but was about making the unionization movement as democratic as possible.
“This is an internal decision made by the Princeton Graduate Student Union; it’s not the same thing as a union election. Nevertheless, we wanted to be as inclusive as possible when it came to making this necessary decision,” he said. “Actually having six percent of the student body is actually a very encouraging sign. That means we’re already almost a fifth of a way to the thirty-eight percent marker, which, under federal labor law, is the number of card-carrying union members necessary to call a union election for the entire bargaining unit.”
Walsh called the affiliation votes a “very significant step forward,” and said that affiliating with AFT will give PGSU access to resources like paid full- and part-time staff, office space, and legal representation. Specifically, AFT has pledged to provide a paid campaign director, three to five full-time paid staff, an office in Princeton, and legal support.
“This outcome means that we now have a framework in place to bring in AFT to back our organizing efforts,” Walsh added, “That means that the national union will have our backs as union organizers.”
Multiple graduates within PGSU deferred their comments to Walsh.
Moving forward, AFT will work with and support PGSU to develop a campaign to negotiate a contract with the University, the terms of of which would determine what kind of presence and influence a graduate student union would have on campus.
This campaign will allow PGSU to assess and prioritize their members’ concerns and goals including stipend size, child care, and teaching and research assistant duties. They will also have to decide whether or not to be a closed-shop union. The contract will formally define PGSU’s role on campus, including if and where their members can strike.
Many graduate students not involved with the PGSU declined to comment.The Graduate Student Government is currently conducting research on questions graduate students might have about the possibility of unionizing through their Unionization Fact Finding Committee.