Frequently Asked Questions About Graduate Student Unionization

As national conversations take place about graduate student unionization, we encourage members of our community to educate themselves on the issue by seeking out, examining, and balancing information and perspectives, particularly as decisions to unionize affect both current and future generations of graduate students.

To help facilitate the discussion, on this web page you will find general information and answers to some commonly asked questions about bargaining units, the election process, collective bargaining, and more. Information is organized by category, so if you do not wish to scroll through the page, simply click on a topic below.

Note: There is no graduate student union election scheduled at Emory University. Emory has not received notice that any union has asked the National Labor Relations Board to conduct such an election.

Private and public university unions

Many public/state universities have unions. Would Emory’s experience mirror theirs?

Not likely. Graduate students serve different roles at private universities than they do at public universities. At public universities, teaching opportunities and compensation are often tied directly to the cost of educating undergraduates. At Emory, students engage in teaching and research as part of their required educational experiences and at different points in their graduate studies. Funding packages for graduate students are not tied to teaching and research, which are considered a part of student graduate education and professional development. Thus, stipend support for Laney doctoral students remains constant irrespective of where the student is in fulfilling teaching and research requirements.

As it relates to the law, there is a fundamental difference.  State universities are subject to state labor laws, whereas Emory, as a private university, is subject to federal labor laws and the National Labor Relations Act.  Many states have provisions in their labor laws that exclude academic decisions from the collective bargaining process. Thus, there are protections in the applicable state laws that prevent unions from becoming involved in academic matters at public universities. Likewise, many state laws (unlike federal law) prohibit strikes among public employees, graduate students included, and contain provisions for mandatory arbitration. Federal labor law has not been tailored to address the needs of higher education, so these protections are not currently included in federal law.  A graduate student union at Emory risks blurring the lines between academic and other decisions, and disagreements could lead to a strike or a lockout.

About bargaining units

What is a bargaining unit?

A “bargaining unit” is a group of employees who have common terms and conditions of employment that the union seeks to organize as one group. A union negotiates on behalf of the bargaining unit to establish collective terms and conditions of employment, such as salary and benefits. Bargaining units can be small, representing a sub-section or smaller group of employees, or they can be large.

Once a bargaining unit is defined, can it change?

Yes, but this doesn't occur frequently. If the union and the employer agree to change the bargaining unit, then it can be changed. The bargaining unit can also change if either the union or the employer files a “unit clarification petition,” which is a formal request that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) revise the parameters of the certified bargaining unit. Unless otherwise agreed to by the parties, the union initially proposes a bargaining unit when it files an election petition with the NLRB, and the NLRB ultimately decides the appropriate bargaining unit, which is important in determining who is eligible to vote.

Union dues

What are union dues and how are they calculated?

Unions are businesses. Their only source of revenue is collecting dues from members. For unions, this comes in the form of membership dues and initiation fees. Each union establishes its own dues formula. From what we have gathered, SEIU dues appear to be stated as a percentage of income with figures running from 1.5% to 2.5% of income/stipend.

Are members of the bargaining unit required to pay dues to the union?

Georgia has a “right-to-work” law, which means employees represented by a union cannot be forced to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of continued employment. Represented employees who do not join the union or pay dues are, however, still exclusively represented by the union. They cannot deal directly with Emory or the Laney Graduate School about matters related to the bargaining agreement, and they are bound by the terms contained in any collective bargaining agreement.

Authorization cards

What are authorization cards? 

Authorization cards are written declarations, akin to a power of attorney, signed by potential members of a bargaining unit. The card states that the signor authorizes a particular union to be their exclusive representative for the purposes of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment with their employer.

How do unions use authorization cards?

Typically, unions collect authorization cards as part of an organizing drive – that is, an attempt to show that there is a substantial interest in unionizing and a desire to have the union serve as the exclusive bargaining agent for an established bargaining unit. The union must present cards from at least 30% of the proposed bargaining unit to seek an election.

If a student signs an authorization card, can she/he/they take it back?

Usually not. An individual cannot effectively revoke a card once it has been used as part of the union’s sharing of interests to the NLRB. Moreover, it is important to note that each eligible voter is always free to vote however she/he/they wants in the secret ballot election, irrespective of whether that voter previously signed an authorization card.

Representation petition

What does it mean to submit a representation petition to the NLRB?

A petition is a formal request addressed to the NLRB to determine by secret ballot election whether a majority of employees in a bargaining unit wishes to be represented by a particular labor organization for the purposes of collective bargaining. When submitting a petition, a union must show that at least 30% of the employees in the designated bargaining unit want the union to be their bargaining agent. As a factual matter, unions want much more than 30% before they file a petition, anticipating that support will fall off as an election approaches. Whether a 30% showing of interest has been demonstrated is an administrative determination made by the NLRB's Regional Director. The NLRB regional office with jurisdiction in this matter is in Atlanta.

What does the NLRB do with a representation petition?

After receiving the petition, the NLRB Regional Director typically assigns an agent to the case and a preliminary investigation is started. The Board will attempt to get the parties to stipulate to an election.

If the parties do not stipulate to an election, an NLRB hearing officer conducts a formal representation hearing. After gathering all the relevant information, including witness testimony and documentary evidence, the hearing officer refers, without recommendation, the full record of the case to the NLRB Regional Director. The Regional Director then reviews the case and can decide to dismiss the petition or to order an election in a bargaining unit determined to be appropriate.

Election process

What is the election process and when would it take place?

A secret-ballot election would be conducted and supervised by representatives of the NLRB within a few weeks after the Regional Director or the NLRB directs it.

How would an election be held?

NLRB representatives would conduct and supervise all aspects of a secret-ballot election. Voting would likely take place at an easily accessible location on campus on a specified day, during specified hours. It is also possible it could take place by mail.

Is student turnout important?

Yes, absolutely! The outcome of an election would be decided by a simple majority of votes cast. For example, if only 100 out of 500 eligible students vote, 51 voters would determine the outcome for all 500 students in the bargaining unit, as well as future students. It is important to note that the NLRB has adopted the principle that voters who do not participate in the election assent to the will of the majority of those voting. For example, in the recent election at Loyola University Chicago, only 120 out of 210 eligible graduate assistants voted, with 71 voting for the union and 49 voting against it. In other words, only 34% of eligible students determined the outcome of the vote for all 210 students.

Does the election process protect students?

Yes. An NLRB election would permit graduate students to cast their ballots in secret, exercising their free choice in an environment free from pressure or coercion. The election would be conducted according to well-established rules that regulate the conduct of both the University and the union. The NLRB would decide who is eligible to vote, the scope of the potential bargaining unit, and any other issues that affect the election.

Will students have access to any drafts of the proposed contract or list of provisions to be negotiated prior to a vote?

No. Bargaining does not occur until after the union has won the election. The union’s agenda for bargaining is typically determined by union leadership in consultation with its members. The National Labor Relations Act requires employers and unions to bargain collectively and in good faith with respect to “wages, hours, and other terms of employment,” which are broad concepts.

Who should vote?

Eligible voters are people who are part of the defined voting unit at the time of the election. Your status as a research or teaching assistant at the time of the election, not your status as a graduate student, will likely determine if you are eligible to vote. Every eligible person should vote because the election outcome is determined by the majority of those who vote, not a majority of those eligible to vote. Thus, union representation for non-voters will be decided by those who vote and no one can opt out of the process on its outcome.

Can a student opt out of the union by not voting?

No. The results of any election would bind everyone in the bargaining unit, including students who do not vote, students who vote “no,” and future students who will not have a chance to vote.

If students vote not to unionize, can they have another election?

Yes, but not right away. There is generally a one-year waiting period after an election until another election can be held. If a majority of voters voted against union representation, the same union or a different union could seek an election one year later.

If a union is established

If students vote to unionize, how long will the union represent students?

Union elections are not like political elections. Voters do not have the opportunity to determine their representatives at scheduled intervals with term limits. Once a union is in place and certified as the exclusive representative of a bargaining unit, it remains so indefinitely and will represent all students who matriculate in the future unless a decertification petition is filed.

If students vote to unionize, can students come in and out of the union depending on their position at Emory?

Yes. Because a labor union represents students only in their capacity as teaching or research assistants, students could enter the bargaining unit and be subject to union representation when serving as teaching or research assistants, but exit the bargaining unit and no longer be subject to union representation when not serving as a TA or RA.

Once a union has been established, can it be removed?

Yes, but…. The process to remove or decertify a union is complex and can sometimes take years to complete. It is much easier to establish a union than to remove it.

Collective bargaining

Who would sit at the bargaining table?

Representatives of both the University and the union would sit at the bargaining table. On the University's side, labor relations professionals, administrators, and faculty members would likely participate. On the other side, the union would pick its own bargaining team, which might include graduate student leaders, members, and staff, together with representatives of the union itself.

What do unions bargain for?

The National Labor Relations Act requires employers and unions to bargain collectively and in good faith with respect to “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment” – concepts that the NLRB and federal courts have interpreted broadly. Because the NLRB and the federal courts have no experience in analyzing what are “terms and conditions of employment” for graduate students whose teaching and research are part of their graduate training, it is possible that disagreements over what is “bargainable” or not in the context of higher education will result in litigation.

Will graduate student stipends and benefits increase through union bargaining?

That is unknown. Indeed, all outcomes of bargaining are unknown. While supporters of graduate student unions might believe that current stipend levels, benefits, etc. will only improve through collective bargaining, there is no guarantee that will be the case. It is important to note that the law does not require either a union or management to agree to any contract proposal.

If an individual student objects to a provision in the labor contract, will she/he/they still be bound by the contract?

Yes. The union represents all graduate students in the bargaining unit. The provisions in the contract it negotiates apply to all unit members.

Would Emory be able to make exceptions to provisions in the contract to accommodate individual needs or exceptions for students in the bargaining unit?

Not generally. Collective bargaining agreements focus on graduate students as a collective group predominantly over any individual student and his/her/their needs.

These questions and answers reflect multiple sources of information, including information from government websites and information shared by or publicly available at other institutions. All information has been reviewed by Emory University's Office of the General Counsel.