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Despite strong unionization push, hesitation remains for some graduate students

“I think the union’s biggest enemy at this point is the union itself,” one graduate student said.


Not all graduate students are feeling positive about the recent unionization push led by the Princeton Graduate Students Union (PGSU), which reached a majority of the University’s 3,000 graduate students that had signed union cards a week after graduate students rallied for fair wages and affordable housing.

Graduate students who spoke to the ‘Prince’ reported that many have grown frustrated with the current union leadership, citing their many perceived missteps. Additionally, graduate students report, STEM students have participated less enthusiastically.


Discussions about forming a graduate student union have persisted for many years but have gained steam recently, coinciding with a national uptick in unionization, which has featured multiple high-profile unionization efforts at other universities.

PGSU has articulated six specific goals for the unionization effort: “fair and effective cross-campus grievance procedures,” “improved support for international students,” “comprehensive, inclusive and funded healthcare and childcare,” “affordable housing guaranteed through graduation,” “guaranteed cost of living adjustments and contingency funding,” and “fair, clear and safe work standards.” Much of the conversation has focused on affordable housing and increasing stipends.

Shaurya Aarav, a fifth-year graduate student in the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department, said that neither issue warranted a union.

“[PGSU] was trying to work for better housing, and better healthcare and childcare. So on these fronts, it seems that we are already well off. We received a considerable stipend hike last year, and when I talked to my other friends from other cities, it seems that [Princeton graduate students] receive a good stipend already,” Aarav said. 

“So if I was in one of the University of California Schools, I would fully understand that demand. But at Princeton, it seems that [our] stipend is good enough,” he added.

Aarav also told the ‘Prince’ that he had reservations about the union ultimately becoming “an intermediary between the university and me.”  


“I don't know what the unintended consequences of that intermediary would be,” he said. Aarav said he is not involved with the unionization nor does he personally know anyone who was involved with the unionization efforts.

Divisions between STEM and the humanities

One challenging dynamic that organizers have run into is the general difference in outlook between graduate students in STEM departments and those in the humanities. The division is evident in the departmental breakdown of union organizers by department. Although, according to a former PGSU representative who was granted anonymity, the union has taken steps to ensure each department has some representation in union leadership, there are still wide disparities in fields. Of the union organizers listed on PGSU’s website, 13 are in politics and nine are in English, whereas physics, neuroscience, and chemistry have only four organizers combined.

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Multiple graduate students who spoke to the ‘Prince’ said this dynamic is likely due to the different treatment of graduate students in STEM compared to those in the humanities. According to graduate students, humanities departments tend to have less funding than their peers in STEM — therefore, the graduate students in the humanities do not always know if their funding will extend throughout the summer.

Tim Alberdingk Thijm, a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Computer Science who is heavily involved with the unionization effort, gave reasons why STEM students should be more engaged with unionization.

Thijm told the ‘Prince’ that a “problem that people in STEM face is that [their] funding is very dependent on [their] advisor … That can put people in a precarious position, especially … if their advisor is harassing or overworking them.” 

“That can actually be a lot more difficult to deal with, in some ways, than in the humanities,” he said.

The former PGSU organizer, who is in a STEM department, said that, in his experience, graduate students who are not in the humanities and do not have friends in the humanities tend to be singularly focused on their research and do not care about unionization.

Lack of confidence in leadership

Students noted that union leadership never provided a specific explanation for what it means to sign a union card. 

“I’m signing something legally binding, right? So I should get legal documentation [explaining] what I am signing. What does that mean? What is going to happen after?” asked the former PGSU organizer.

With information sparse from PGSU, the University sent an email to all graduate students that discussed what unions meant and gave an interpretation of the effects that unionization has on wages. In the email, administrators expressed “concern” about unionization, while stressing students could make their own decision.

This communication gap may have had an impact on student perspectives.

“[The University is] cautiously telling us stuff like ‘Hey, this is information that they didn't tell you.’ And they're holding a lot of helpful information sessions, which the union could have done. [Because we’re] like, ‘hey what does the union mean for me?’” said the former PGSU organizer. 

However, Thijm told the ‘Prince’ that students should be skeptical of the University’s messaging.

“Universities will sort of play this role of presenting themselves as sort of these neutral kinds of information givers. But they are hiring union-busting law firms or are consulting with various organizations which have a history of busting unions or being anti-union to hone their messaging. And [University emails are] often designed to confuse people and make things unclear,” Thijm said.

The former PGSU organizer, however viewed the failure of communication as crucial. “The University doesn’t need to do much to thwart the union. I think the union’s biggest enemy at this point is the union itself, because they are making these mistakes so then the University can seem like the good guy by providing documents and information sessions.” 

Another perceived misstep, which the union has not fully corrected, is that union leadership made guaranteed housing a key plank in the unionization effort. The University clarified in an email that unions cannot promise guaranteed housing. 

Himawan Winarto, a fifth-year in the Program in Plasma Physics and the Graduate Student Government representative for the department wrote an op-ed in the ‘Prince’ referencing the claim, saying that he “compared ratified and historical contracts from graduate student unions at similar universities. I found that there is no precedent that suggests that PGSU can achieve what it has promised.” 

“In fact, unionization may lower expected stipend growth in the long run and use members as pawns in political agendas. The benefits that a union can actually achieve are marginal, at best,” Winarto wrote.

The University is already attempting to increase capacity for graduate student housing by building the Meadows Housing Complex in 2024 across Lake Carnegie, which will provide 379 additional units for use by both graduate students and post-doctoral researchers, and will allow the University to offer subsidized housing to all graduate students. The majority of graduate students who spoke to the ‘Prince’ were enthusiastic about the Meadows Housing Complex and said that, in their eyes, it decreased the need for a union.

PGSU-affiliated graduate students pushed back against the idea that the housing problem will be solved.

“The University tells us that we’re shifting towards a model where there’s going to be 100 percent [housing for graduate students], which means that the University is going to be everyone’s employer and everyone’s landlord,” a second-year graduate student, who is actively involved with PGSU and wanted to remain anonymous, said in an interview in which he emphasized the need for graduate students to have some power to negotiate with the University.

“The University has been saying that [housing’s] actually not something that we can negotiate, which is just not true. We can have negotiations; all the graduate students should be able to successfully negotiate over housing policies,” the second-year student continued.

One other misstep referenced by the former PGSU organizer was that the group took credit for the University’s increase of the graduate student stipend, even though it was a scheduled pay increase, while the union is not yet formed and thus does not negotiate with the University. Union leaders also exaggerated the size of the stipend increase in a communication to all graduate students.

“That made a lot of us question the union, like why are they misleading us? They lied to us, so why should we believe them?” asked the former organizer.

The former PGSU organizer still argues that a union would be beneficial for graduate students, but doubts the current leadership.

“The doubt [about unionization] mostly comes from the leadership, like, okay, can we trust these people? They have already made mistakes, and they can claim ‘well it happens,’ but people have doubts because of that. Most people want to union. But misleading people to vote for a union will have the opposite effect,” they said.

One first-year graduate student who wanted to remain anonymous noted that they were happy with their living situation and stipends, saying, “I don’t need the union, because I feel like Princeton is meeting all my needs. I feel like I’m more than satisfied.”

However, like the former PGSU organizer, this student told the ‘Prince’ that they could understand the benefits a union may bring.

“In the future, we might need a space of debate. And that’s what a union is for.”

Julian Hartman-Sigall is an assistant News editor at the ‘Prince.’

Zach Lee is a News contributor for the ‘Prince.’

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