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Amid unionization uncertainty, Princeton Graduate Students United took on broader activism

Photo of a gothic stone tower above other stone buildings against a cloudy gray sky.
The Graduate College
Louisa Gheorghita / The Daily Princetonian

Over the last few weeks, Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU) has been collecting signatures from students in the hopes of unionizing with United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. While eyes on the group have been high over the last semester, this is not the first time PGSU has pushed for unionization since its inception in Fall 2016.

With court rulings first allowing unionization in 2016, then reversing that decision in 2019 and reinstating it in 2021, PGSU has looked beyond the goal of unionization. PGSU has taken positions on campus issues frequently in the past, which has elicited criticism at times. Especially since the pandemic, the union has focused on issues more specific to graduate students, but their broader activism continued. The Daily Princetonian looks back at PGSU’s history, mapping out its initiatives and controversies over the years.


PGSU’s inception

After the National Labor Relation Board (NLRB) ruled in August 2016 that graduate students are considered employees and therefore have the right to unionize, graduate students at Princeton began meeting immediately to decide whether or not they wanted a union. On Oct. 18 of the same year, 162 University graduate students gathered in McCosh 62 and voted by a 77 percent margin for PGSU to seek affiliation with the American Federation of Teachers, a national union specializing in education, over another option, which sought recognition with the Service Employees International Union, a generalized union that currently represents service workers at the University.

From its early days, PGSU took positions on campus issues. In September 2017, PGSU criticized the University for stressing “diverse perspectives” when it came to “issues such as climate change, white nationalism, the rights of transgendered [sic] people and immigrants” as part of an open letter signed by mostly left-wing groups on campus. The open letter called on the University to instead “unequivocally condemn climate change denialism, white nationalism, gendered violence, and anti-immigrant hatred.”

In May 2019, PGSU backed undergraduate students protesting the University’s “negligent” response to Title IX allegations writing in the ‘Prince’ that the University “is not a tax-advantaged hedge fund with a side business in issuing diplomas and greening its lawns. It serves at the pleasure of its human base of students, teachers, researchers, or workers. The needs of this constituency are its only imperatives.”

PGSU’s stances elicited some controversy. Brandon Hunter, who was a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology when PGSU formed in 2016, said that the PGSU took stances that failed to accurately represent individuals in the organization. Hunter cited this as a foundational problem, saying, “The labor movement can only succeed if it is as inclusive as possible.”

However, Hunter added that he thinks the organization has improved on being more graduate student-oriented over time, telling the ‘Prince,’ “I think maybe one of the things that the organization has learned is maybe to focus on more graduate student-oriented issues.”


In 2017, Hunter published an op-ed in the ‘Prince’ detailing his disdain for the structural issues of the organization, saying he was removed after receiving comments that he had created an “unsafe organizing space.”  

Hunter claims he was never given an opportunity to confront his accuser or tell his side of the story, as there was no established process for this within the organization. Hunter told the ‘Prince’ that he believes this lack of structure is antithetical to what a union should be, saying a union should have “due process … and do its best to preserve harmony in the workplace rather than just firing people willy-nilly.”

When asked about Hunter’s experience, PGSU organizers Elisa Purschke and Harry Fetsch said that although they were not yet at Princeton in 2017, they are looking to fix systemic issues like this, once they are recognized as an official union.

Unionization setback and refocus on COVID-19

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In September 2019, the NLRB reversed its 2016 decision, ruling that students who work for compensation are not employees, meaning attempts at unionization would have to pause.

In 2020, PGSU’s focus shifted sharply to advocate for graduate students during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, PGSU created an online petition that received 352 student signatures asking for University aid for COVID-19 related issues, including continued pay, healthcare coverage, and transportation costs. 

The petition was updated a month later to say that “some of these demands have been met.”

In April 2020, PGSU circulated a petition calling on the University to “STOP THE CLOCK” and lengthen all graduate student fellowships, benefits, enrollment statuses, time-to-degree deadlines, and international student support — such as I-20 and DS-2019 forms — by a year, as many students faced research delays and hiring freezes due to COVID-19. The petition received nearly 800 signatures.

In July 2021, as campus restrictions were lifted, members of PGSU sent an open letter to several administrators, voicing their concerns over the University’s decision to stop offering telehealth and teletherapy to students on the Student Health Plan. They stated that the pandemic was “not yet over” and this decision would have “real financial and medical consequences for graduate workers.”

PGSU joined with the Disability Collective (DisCo) in January 2022, becoming a prominent supporter of remote options as COVID-19 surged again. PGSU cited the impact on vulnerable students and staff during the spring semester of 2022, teaming up with DisCo to create a petition which garnered over 363 signatures the day it was posted.

PGSU’s activism on other topics also did not stop entirely. In 2021, PGSU launched a campaign alongside Princeton Students for Title IX Reform to raise awareness about the sexual misconduct accusations against former classics professor Joshua Katz.

Recent organizing

In March 2021, the NLRB reversed its 2019 decision, once again allowing graduate students who are paid to teach or research to form unions. In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Purschke and Fetsch said this was the beginning of a new era for the organization. 

“The general conditions for labor organizing in higher education changed, and there was, again, a prospect for us to actually file for an election,” Purschke told the ‘Prince.’

“Now we have a card campaign where we have a really well-defined goal. We’re going to hold an election and we’re going to form a union,” Purschke continued.

“One thing that we’ll do once we’re recognized on campus is that we’ll come up with a Constitution draft bylaws that we will democratically vote on. The larger this organization gets and the farther we get through our campaign,” Fetsch said, “the more we’re going to have chances to formalize our procedures.”

According to the organizers, the sheer size of the movement is giving them confidence that the issues they stand under will be seen through, despite these doubts.

“I think it’s a pretty exciting moment where we have a majority of support for the organization so we want to make it happen. We’re trying to get to a really strong super majority, so we can go to the bargaining table with a compelling majority,” Purschke said.

Bridget O’Neill is an assistant News editor at the ‘Prince.’

Francisco Arciniega is a News contributor for the ‘Prince.’

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