More than sixty University graduate students gathered to discuss whether they should unionize, and if so which organization to affiliate with, in a town hall meetingOct. 13.
After the National Labor Relation Board’s August 2016 decision ruled that graduate students at private universities could unionize, graduate students at the University started meeting to decide whether or not they wanted some form of collective bargaining.
In the meeting, the students discussed two potential organizations to collaborate with in preparing their potential negotiation of a contract with the University.
Two organizations — the American Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union — reached out to the graduate students with offers to aid the graduate students' campaign to negotiate a contract with the University should they decide to unionize. Both the AFT and SEIU have made commitments to provide University graduate students with paid staff dedicated to their campaign, legal aid when they needed representation, and access to a meeting space. AFT’s promised commitments are more specific, pledging a paid campaign director, three to five full-time paid staff, and an established Princeton, NJ office.
After reading and hearing summaries of both proposals, students voted to delay deciding which organization to affiliate with until Tuesday, Oct. 18th.
The meeting was then opened to questions and commentary using a “stack” method. During this time students voiced their hopes for and concerns about unionizing.
Students who were also parents worried that union dues would further stress their already stretched stipends, though other audience members quickly reassured them that union dues would not be collected until after the students had negotiated a contract, which would potentially include a higher stipend.
One audience member commented that to some, a closed shop union would feel like “getting caught in the gears of a device they have no control over.”
A first-year graduate student who identified herself as a labor historian replied that closed-shop unions have been the most successful. She said that allowing graduate students to opt out of the union without a fee could be a “disaster” for collective bargaining efforts.
“My main concern is to make sure that graduate students have a place at the table when it comes to negotiating with the administration because, as others have mentioned at the town hall, there’s a sentiment among graduate students that in meaningful ways we’re locked out of major decision-making bodies," said David Walsh GS, third year graduate student in the History department.
"In fact, there isn’t a representative of recent alumni from the graduate school on the Board of Trustees," Walsh said. "I see the union as, in addition to the concrete gains that it can give graduate students in terms of healthcare, benefits, contracts, I think that it could help change the University culture to make this a better place for graduate students, faculty, and undergraduate students as a sort of community-building exercise.”
Students further discussed the benefits and drawbacks of AFT and SEIU. AFT has historically focused on organizing workers in higher education and generally grants more local autonomy to its members. It also has a national network with shared expertise and resources that meets twice annually. SEIU is a solidaristic union that emphasizes the connection between labor struggles and other political struggles. It is also the largest union on campus and represents the University’s service workers. Many students at the meeting voiced the opinion that being affiliated with SEIU would create greater worker solidarity on campus and potentially even greater leverage.
Walsh explained that he thought that AFT was the students’ best option.
“AFT has organized the Rutgers system in the state of New Jersey as well as faculty members in the Rutgers system," he said. "AFT is actually affiliated with the American Association of University Professors in the state of New Jersey. I feel like with their history in this state, along with their track record of success in this state, they seem to be a better fit for our efforts here than SEIU, which has more of a national presence.”
Students will vote on affiliation Oct. 18th at the next union meeting, and they are currently arranging an absentee system.While the vote will be a step toward unionization, whether or not a union will actually be formed will depend on whether the graduate students could get a contract with the University.
The town hall meeting was held from 6 to 8 p.m. in 62 McCosh Hall.