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At panel, Princeton unions look forward to recognition, focus on unity and engagement

Five people sit around a table with a red banner on the front reading ‘YDSA / Young Democratic Socialists of America’
Representatives from various labor unions on and around campus convened on Tuesday for a panel discussion.
Courtesy of Princeton YDSA

While current union drives for graduate students and postdoctoral workers have yet to be recognized by the University, Jeff Coley, the president of Service Employees International Union-175 (SEIU-175), reminded attendees of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) Labor Unions Panel of the five unions already operating on campus.

According to Coley, these groups — SEIU, the Department of Public Safety, Firestone Library librarians, “security guards,” and employees at the cogeneration plant — frequently communicate with one another “to see if everything is going okay with them, see if they have new ideas.” 


“It’s very important for all the unions here at this university to talk with our other unions, because this is how they become stronger,” he added.

The panel, held on March 5 at 5 p.m. in Robertson 001, was hosted by the Princeton Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) and featured representatives from various unions within the community. Jeff Coley represented SEIU, English Ph.D. candidate Piper Winkler represented Princeton Graduate Student Union (PGSU), Jessica Ng represented Princeton University Postdocs and Scholars (PUPS), and Becca Ziemann represented the Labyrinth Books Union. 

The event was moderated by YDSA President Abby Leibowitz ’26, and focused on difficulties surrounding the unionization process, how unions function within the Princeton community, and how to start a broader campus conversation about unionization at Princeton.

Leibowitz is a senior News writer for The Daily Princetonian.

Winker referenced the fact that Princeton is the only Ivy League university without a recognized graduate student union, saying, “At this point, we’re just catching up to what our peer institutions are already doing.”

PGSU considered seeking voluntary recognition from the University last May, a couple of months after a majority of graduate students signed union cards. 


During the panel, Winkler said that the union is still in the card campaign stage.

“We want to file a supermajority of cards, so [to have] about 60 percent of grad students signing … to have an election and get our union recognized,” she said.

Under the rules of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), at least 30 percent of employees in a given workplace need to sign union cards in order to call an election.

“There have been, in various departments, anti-union meetings,” Winkler said. “At Yale and other places, anti-union campaigns have been less vehement than organizers expected them to be, but of course the University has the opportunity to drag things out as long as possible. We haven’t reached that stage, but we’re prepared to.” 

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In an statement to the ‘Prince,’ University Spokesperson Jennifer Morrill wrote, “Since the initial communication from the Graduate School on Feb. 28, 2023 and throughout many town halls across the University last spring, Dean [of the Graduate School] Rodney Priestley has said that the University respects the right of students to make an informed decision about unionization without any pressure from the institution or its constituents, including students for or against unionization and faculty.”

Panelists also discussed some of the challenges and tactics around union organizing at the University and in town, with Ziemann and Ng both expressing that the short tenures of their peers made organizing difficult.

“A lot of people are here for just one year, two years, maybe three years,” Ng said of postdoctoral researchers. The postdoc union card campaign has been ongoing since December.

Multiple union representatives also expressed concern about a lack of affordable housing in the town of Princeton and how that has driven ongoing unionization efforts. 

“Sometimes grads go to the Housing Office to ask for help and are told that they should just look for housing in Pennsylvania, which is not that helpful,” said Winkler. 

“I have coworkers who have to live an hour away to find affordable housing,” added Ziemann.

In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ Morrill wrote that the Housing department maintains a website with general off-campus rentals, which does include housing in Pennsylvania. According to the University, 70 percent of graduate students live on campus.

Panelists also emphasized the practical importance of contracts and negotiations. Coley referenced the snowstorm on Feb. 13 as an example of the usefulness of a contract. The University closed for non-essential personnel, but according to Coley, some employees showed up anyway and were sent home early.

In the days after, Coley recalled saying to a University official in the days after, “Let’s do an easy fix here. Everybody you sent home: pay them for the rest of the day ... [The official] said ‘I don’t want to pay everyone’ … I said, ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s right there [in the contract].’”

“They may come at me with a ridiculously written article, and we come back the following day with triple the ridiculousness,” Coley said of contract negotiations.

Coley emphasized that strikes are a last resort for SEIU. “Strikes [are] a difficult thing … if we want to strike, 740 members aren’t getting their paychecks,” he said.

Coley added that combatting racism “is something that’s huge for me,” and expressed concern about a decrease in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) trainings for University staff.

In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ Morrill said the claim that the University has decreased or canceled racial bias trainings “is not accurate. The University has in fact increased the number of learning opportunities and the reach of our professional development through our Inclusion and Development Certificate Program (the sixth cohort of this program is launching next week), as well as workshops … [that] touch race and ethnicity in addition to many other dimensions of diversity.” 

According to Morrill, the University also offers DEI-related classes through a Management Development Certificate Program, as well as other classes available on the HR website. 

“The only canceled classes were due to a snow day when the University closed. The only other time we canceled (but then rescheduled) was for a department that did not share the class invitation with their employees in a timely fashion, resulting in not enough registrations,” Morrill added.  

Morrill also stated that the classes are in high demand and can quickly fill. She noted that this is being addressed by focusing on centralized workshops and department-specific learning paths. 

“In many cases, we schedule separate times or embed workshops into meetings the departments have scheduled, which means the workshops do not show up in our central learning system as open for all,” she wrote.

Overall, panelists agreed that unity is a crucial aspect of successful unionization campaigns. 

“As all the wonderful people here have been saying, there’s so much value in building a strong community of unionized workers on campus and sharing our solidarity with one another,” emphasized Winkler.

Miriam Waldvogel is an associate News editor for the ‘Prince.’

Olivia Sanchez is an associate News editor for the ‘Prince.’

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