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In 2016, we began organizing with Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU) to give Princeton graduate students a voice in the terms of our employment. We were not alone. Following the example of NYU’s graduate student union, which won a historic cost-of-living pay increase in 2015 (see also here) and nascent organizing movements at Yale, UChicago, and Columbia, we became part of a widespread movement determined to bring workplace democracy to private universities after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) upheld our right to unionize in an important 2016 decision that affirmed graduate students’ status as workers.
Since then, we have lived through a pandemic (and a completely unfounded period of university austerity), seen our legal right to unionize as grad workers challenged and reaffirmed, and are now witnessing a grad organizing wave that is changing working conditions across the country. Yet, systemic workplace issues and inequities at Princeton remain. In 2023, as in 2016, grad workers need and deserve basic protections through a fair grievance procedure, improved support for international students, safe work standards, comprehensive healthcare, affordable housing, and guaranteed pay increases and contingency funding. Now, we have the legal conditions and unique momentum to achieve these demands, act in solidarity, and address the myriad experiences of our fellow workers at Princeton.
Now, it’s time to unionize.
In 2016, it became clear Princeton grad workers had a variety of concerns when we quickly became the biggest organization of graduate students at Princeton. Then, grad students would pack into town hall meetings at Frist Campus Center and in the dusty basement of Labyrinth Books to share their experiences and grievances as workers at Princeton, learn from organizers about what had been achieved on other campuses, and build our movement. One of us (Sarah) got involved in organizing after attending an early town hall meeting and hearing a harrowing testimonial of a grad worker’s unjust termination. The occurrence revealed that a positive Princeton experience was not a guarantee and that, unless we organized, grad workers would always face precarity and powerlessness against the whims and interests of our bosses. Another of us (Jamie) joined after positive experiences with student unions in the U.K., which demonstrated how collective organizations can care for communities. We began a push to collect union cards and head toward an election.
Throughout the 2016–2017 academic year, PGSU members could be found tabling, flyering, and organizing in graduate labs and offices almost daily. We walked through university departments talking to our colleagues about their working conditions, and together we learned to articulate our interconnected struggles. We heard about targeted harassment and hostile work environments. At one of the richest universities in the world, graduate students lacked adequate healthcare coverage, secure housing access, and affordable child care (see a collection of issues here). While not everyone was immediately convinced that a union was the way to go — and the administration’s propaganda didn’t help — more and more graduate students at Princeton came to see us as worthy of a say in our conditions. We crafted a platform to fight for all of us, and we made steady progress towards an election, tracking our support in colorful handmade charts that adorned our office on Moran Avenue. By the end of the summer of 2017, nearly 1,000 grads had signed union cards.
However, national political conditions narrowed our window to hold an election. After the 2016 presidential election, a new anti-labor majority at the NLRB created great legal uncertainties for grad worker unionization at universities like Princeton and we, along with other graduate unions, were forced to interrupt our unionization drive. Still, a small group of organizers kept PGSU alive over the next few years, participating in labor solidarity actions and pushing for reform on issues that immediately affected graduate students — healthcare, housing, childcare, pay transparency, and gender-based violence and harassment. We waited for the next opportunity to push for graduate student unionization in a different political climate.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. In the midst of great insecurity and uncertainty, the University conspicuously failed to provide any reassurances to precarious graduate workers. PGSU organized graduate students across the school to sign letters and call University administrators as part of a concerted effort to obtain a year of COVID funding extension for all graduate students. This reasonable demand was met with scorn by the University administration, which framed the pervasive issue as an “individual” one and pushed responsibility back to departments and advisers — who may or may not have the funds to support their graduate workers. International students were left on their own to navigate the stresses and expenses of travel disruptions and visa issues. STEM grads were left on their own to negotiate in-person work in unsafe conditions in their labs. As we emerge into what the University insists is “a new normal,” it is clear that graduate students at Princeton deserved and continue to deserve better.
We are now on the cusp of an election, and we’re the closest we have ever been. The NLRB under the Biden administration reaffirmed our rights as workers to unionize, ending years of uncertainty. Grad worker unionization campaigns resurged across the country. PGSU held an open vote and chose to affiliate with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), an independent union known for embracing rank-and-file democracy which has recently held successful union elections with graduate workers at MIT, UChicago, Johns Hopkins, and Northwestern. The affiliation and card campaign went public in February in a rally at Scudder Plaza, and more than half of graduate students signed cards in the following nine days. Watching video footage from the rally, it was clear to us that the enthusiasm of six years ago is back. The new generation of PGSU-ers, so well-versed in digital organizing and Zoom meetings, turned out in person with carefully crafted handmade signs. The union movement is making waves on campus once again, with a stronger coalition than ever before.
We are so proud of the graduate student organizers who have brought us to this point. It is deeply heartening to see solidarity spread across this campus. We urge Princeton graduate students to follow their colleagues at grad unions across the country to take a seat at the table, to set the terms of their employment, and to stand together as Princeton Graduate Students United.
Jamie Pelling GS and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Reibstein graduate student who graduated in 2022 and can be reached at email@example.com.