Over 150 graduate students, undergraduates, and post-graduate fellows rallied together with Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU) to demand fair wages and more affordable housing from the University. A flyer distributed for the event stated “power and protection for grad workers,” and promoted PGSU’s union card campaign, which makes organizing efforts an official union campaign.
The audience listened to speeches from graduate workers, Rutgers American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT), Teachers and Reachers United (TRU) at Johns Hopkins University, and Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA). Undergraduate student groups including the Princeton College Democrats and the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) also went to the rally to show their support.
“Princeton works because we do,” members of PGSU stated during a speech.
The crowd chanted at one point during the rally, “accept my labor, respect my rights.” They also repeated the chant in Spanish. A number of attendees held signs, including those saying, “more pay, more say,” “I signed my union card,” and “union yes!”
After the rally, graduate students walked around different buildings on campus to hand out union cards. A member of PGSU collected cards on the first floor of the Frist Campus Center. By the time of publication, over 1,200 cards were filled out.
According to the flyer, the group demands fair and effective grievance procedures, improved international student support, better healthcare and funded childcare, affordable housing through graduation, guaranteed pay raises and contingency funds, and clear and safe work standards. PGSU also hopes that the rally and union cards will help them fight for legal recognition as a labor union so that they can represent graduate student workers and negotiate with the University to form a contract.
Gaby Nair, a graduate student and organizer of the rally, spoke to The Daily Princetonian about her hopes for the future of graduate students at the University.
“Today, we are building momentum to get through the first stage of the unionization process [and] to cut to the next phase,” Nair said. “This phase includes signatures that indicate that grads want to have a union election at Princeton, and so we decided to have this rally to kick off that process.”
This move comes in light of a larger unionization movement among universities, including Columbia University graduate workers’ 10-week strike last year and Boston University graduate students’ overwhelming vote to unionize in December. It also comes two months after 48,000 academic employees at the University of California’s (UC) ten campuses walked off their jobs as the nation’s largest education strike, which some have claimed started a “wave” to intensify unionization efforts in universities across the country. Harvard, Columbia, Yale, and Brown are the four Ivy League universities to have unionized so far.
Liana Katz, the vice president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, explained that “New Jersey is union strong” and that the group supports Princeton and other universities' efforts.
“We know that organizing together is a really exciting moment for labor,” she said in her speech. She emphasized the organizing of graduate workers and faculty from the UCs to Temple University and The New School.
“All of our members… stand in solidarity with grad workers at Princeton,” Katz added. “When we organize together, we can win.”
Nancy Tang, an international graduate student who spoke at the rally, expressed a similar sentiment to the crowd.
“As a proud member of the PGSU, I want to ask my fellow international students to join PGSU for our rights and build collective power,“ Tang said. “I also hereby ask my fellow students, regardless of your nationality, to show your support for international graduate students by signing a union card today.”
“I speak here as one of the over 1,300 international graduate students teaching and researching,” she added.
Graduate student Anthony Taboni explained how he lost the graduate student housing lottery this past summer and took four months and hundreds of dollars in application fees to find a one-bedroom apartment. He explained that the University should do more to help students having problems finding housing, as “being close to campus allows [graduate students] to spend more time in [their] labs and be available for undergraduate students [and] be active members of this intellectual community.”
“The University has failed us, and their priorities aren’t clear,” he added.
Erin Firestone, a University spokesperson, responded to the claims made by the PGSU in an email to the ‘Prince.’
“Dean [of the Graduate School Rodney] Priestley is always available to speak with the Graduate Student Government about student interests or concerns,” she wrote. “He is also available during one-on-one office hours to speak with any graduate student about a student’s own individual concerns.”
Last year, the University announced its largest one-year increase in graduate student stipend rates for the 2022-2023 academic year by an average of 25 percent to about $40,000 for doctoral candidates.
In regards to housing, in the University’s announcement, Cole Crittenden, former Dean of the Graduate School, stated, “We offer University housing to a very large percentage of our graduate students, and when the Lake Campus graduate housing facilities are completed, we will be able to offer housing to any enrolled graduate student who wants it, just as we do to our undergraduate students.” The Lake Campus project has since been renamed the Meadows Neighborhood.
Tang said the University should provide more support to international graduate students and do more to help them with challenges related to immigration. She claimed that only 16 departments offer a summer Curricular Practical Training (CPT) course — which offers certification to international students for pursuing work in their area of study — and only six departments offer internship courses during the academic year.
According to the Davis International Center (IC), during the academic year, “your [Optional Practical Training] eligibility and the number of hours you are allowed to work is determined by the Graduate School employment policy.” The website does not specify how many or which departments offer courses.
The University also provides immigration and visa information for students on the Davis IC website.
“We need Princeton to step up their game and help international students with visas and immigration related challenges, including navigating the complicated U.S. tax system,” Tang said. “Today, we flip the script and declare the University is here to support us and should not be allowed to threaten us with the potential question about immigration status,” she added.
The ‘Prince’ also spoke with students who attended the rally.
“This is the start of Princeton’s formal effort to start a union,” graduate student Sophia Menemenlis said.
Graduate student Jacob Matthew Molina shared a similar remark and noted the mental health crisis on campus.
“The student body needs a greater voice, especially in wake of all the unfortunate passings of students,” he said.
Bryce Springfield ’25, co-chair of the YDSA, told the ‘Prince’ that “the least we can do in a system like this is to have workers on somewhat of an equal footing with their employer and some sort of democratic mechanism.”
When graduate workers follow a link shared at the rally and on the PGSU website to obtain a union card, the website reads, “I hereby request and accept membership in the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), and authorize it to represent me, and in my behalf to negotiate and conclude all agreements as to hours of labor, wages, and all other conditions of employment.
The rally took place on Wednesday, Feb. 15 at 12 p.m. at Scudder Plaza.
Lia Opperman is the Investigations Editor and an Associate News Editor for the ‘Prince.’
Please send any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that only Harvard and Columbia were the two Ivy Leagues to have unionized. The article has been updated to include Yale and Brown as well. The article also incorrectly referred to postdoctoral fellows as students.