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Graduate organization advises against unionization with the AFT

On April 20, the Princeton Unionization Information Committee gave their first presentation advising against unionizing with the American Federation of Teachers. Around two dozen people attended the meeting.

Princeton Graduate Students United voted to unionize in affiliation with the AFT in October 2016, but University graduate students don’t yet have a contract because they are still in the process of gathering the minimum numbers of signatories needed to hold elections and negotiate a contract.

The Princeton Unionization Information Committee is a group of graduate students working to ensure that graduate students are fully informed about unionization at every step of the process. Members of the committee feel that graduate students’ interests fall outside the purview of the employer-labor relationship implied by a union.

Ellia Miller, a first-year graduate student in the neuroscience department and a member of the committee, said that the group’s main goal was to make sure graduate students were fully informed about unionization and what it means to unionize.

Miller said that one of the committee’s primary objections against unionizing under the AFT is that the AFT doesn’t allow unionization by department, adding that “one blanket contract” wouldn’t adequately address the needs of different disciplines. In particular, Miller said that the needs and interests of humanities and science students tend to be fairly different.

The committee presented a series of drawbacks of unionization separate from the “blanket contract” issue. Members first noted that unions were authorized and constrained by National Labor Relations Act and the National Labor Relation Board, and that only local dues are usually negotiated democratically on a local level, though total dues are normally calculated as one to two percent of students’ paychecks. They also stressed that students “have it pretty good as is,” and that it isn’t guaranteed that students’ base stipends will be raised to cover dues.

The committee also expressed concern that unionization wouldn’t adequately address some of graduate students’ most pressing problems, including housing, which may or may not fall under the “terms and condition of employment” that the NLRA authorizes for collective bargaining.

Clay Hamill, a second-year chemical engineering graduate student, stressed that the committee would be much more supportive of unionization if PSGU wasn’t affiliated with the AFT. Hammel cited the case of Cornell Graduate Student United members, many of whom have complained that their affiliation with the AFT compromised the autonomy they had been promised and that the AFT had rushed them into making decisions.

Hammel cautioned that the committee was suffering from “data starvation” due to the scarcity of comparable private universities with graduate student unions, adding that the committee regarded the CGSU as their primary model.

Nivedita Rangarajan, a first-year neuroscience graduate student, said she felt unionization would create an “unnecessary roadblock” between students and administrators by preventing individual negotiation. Rangarajan added that though she doesn’t feel that neuroscience students need a union, she would have supported unions if students were allowed to unionize by department.

Fourth-year chemical and biological engineering graduate student Michael Howard echoed Rangarajan, saying that he was “not opposed to unionization in general" but that he doesn't “think that it makes sense for Princeton.” Howard added that he was worried that unionization would negatively impact working life and relationships within departments, and he noted that most problems that graduate students at the University have couldn’t be ameliorated by union negotiations.

Hammel closed the presentation by reiterating that the Princeton Unionization Information Committee preferred a department-by-department approach to unionization to better account for the diversity of needs and interests among University graduate students.

The meeting took place in McCosh 28 at 6:30 p.m. on April 20.

This article has been updated to correct the name of Ellia Miller and Clay Hamill as well as to clarify how state and national dues are calculated.