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Student Graduate Assistant Union Organizing

Essential Background Information

As many of you may be aware, the United Autoworkers Union is seeking to organize graduate Teaching Assistants and Research Assistants on campus. The presence of the Autoworkers Union and its current organizing drive has led to many questions by Northeastern graduate students who are unfamiliar with unions.

Below are answers to several important frequently asked questions about unionization. This information will help SGAs at Northeastern gain a better understanding of how a union may impact their graduate experience.

The Autoworkers Union has created a website and enlisted a handful of graduate students on campus to persuade SGAs to sign union Authorization Cards and pledge support for a graduate student union. Before signing anything, or making any decision, the university encourages SGAs to understand the potential ramifications of what a union could mean for their graduate experience.

Understanding the Basic Issues
(1) What is a union?

A union is an organization that serves as an external or third party agent representing a specific group of employees in all dealings with an employer that concerns employee terms and conditions of employment. This group is called a “bargaining unit.” As a general matter, an employer (which includes managers) may not make changes to unionized employee terms and conditions without first negotiating with the union. Moreover, employers (including managers) are generally prohibited from working directly with represented employees to establish or change terms and conditions of employment. Most unions are large, national organizations with local chapters that represent many groups of employees. An established union typically has organizers who work full-time for the union. These union organizers may or may not have a background in higher education.

(2) Who are the Autoworkers?

The United Autoworkers is a large, national organization. The union’s full title is: International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Workers of America. The Autoworkers diversified beyond the auto industry to aerospace and agriculture in the 1960s as a means of expanding and increasing revenue from union member dues. The Autoworkers main office is in Detroit, Michigan and it currently reports assets of approximately $1.8 billion, with over 700 employees.

(3) What can it mean if a union is elected to represent you?

Graduate students select Northeastern to pursue their studies and career goals for many reasons, including access to the university’s world-class faculty scholars and unparalleled research and experiential learning opportunities. Your own path depends on your individual graduate program, which a union relationship could change. The following are just a few examples of the potential impacts you might experience if the Autoworkers were elected as your union:

  • Financial cost to you: You can expect to pay union dues or an equivalent agency fee to the union, which could be 2% of your stipend.  As an example, the Autoworkers charge dues of 2% for NYU graduate students plus a $50 initiation fee.
  • Limited flexibility: While we do not know what may happen in bargaining, any, and possibly all, terms and conditions of your teaching or research assistant assistantship will be subject to negotiation with the union. In practice, this can mean that you will have less influence over your teaching or research assignments. In addition, during the time that agreement is being negotiated (which can take many months or years), and possibly thereafter, Northeastern would have an obligation to maintain the status quo as to terms and conditions of your teaching or research responsibilities.
  • You lose your individual voice in your graduate experience:  In the event collective bargaining, the union can decide what to prioritize at the bargaining table. Given that the United Autoworkers wants to represent all graduate students, the bargaining team may advance interests in negotiations that differ from what is important to you, meaning your specific priorities can easily go unaddressed.

Because the union believes you are an employee, not a student, collective bargaining    could mean that the university would have to deal directly with the union regarding terms and conditions of your teaching or research responsibilities. While we do not know what would happen in bargaining, the union could seek to limit your ability to work one-on-one with your advisor or aspects of your assignment and responsibilities.

  • One-size-fits-all agreement: It is important to consider how the union can represent your particular interests as part of an agreement designed to cover a large group of graduate students in many departments and colleges across the university.  It is possible that any agreement would control important issues that concern you:
    • what types of teaching or research assignments you will have, including priority for assignments;
    • changes in assignments;
    • your work and class schedules;
    • what your participation in co-op and other experiential programs will be, if any; and,
    • your stipend level (which could increase, decrease or remain the same, particularly when taking into account the cost of union dues or agency fees).

These and many other issues would be determined for everyone in the larger group.

  • There are no guarantees in collective bargaining:  Unions often promise more money with a union contract, but there is no guarantee that will be the case.  In the research world, where funding levels are determined by a variety of factors that are beyond the control of the university and the union, nobody can ensure that research funding will increase. Stipends could also decrease or not change at all as a result of negotiations.
  • You could be called out on strike:  The union may call upon you to take part in a strike. In the event of a strike, your stipend stops. Being out on strike could interrupt your academic and research work.  While the university would never want to see a strike take place, it cannot prevent one if the union demands it.
The Unionization Process

Is the union process simple?

Unions often try to convince people to sign Authorization Cards by telling them that everyone is signing cards and that there will soon be an election and a new contract that will earn everyone more money and improve working conditions. Unions make the process sound swift and simple.  In fact, it is very possible that it could take many months or even years before any contract is signed and many SGAs, including the organizers, may have already graduated and moved on from Northeastern. Consider the following:

The pre-election process can take years:

A union must first collect enough signed Authorization Cards to request an election. This process often takes months or longer. The United Autoworkers announced they have a majority of support, but are still trying to collect signatures. According to a Boston College graduate union website, the United Autoworkers spent two years organizing at BC before their election petition was filed.

Moving from signed cards to a vote can take months:

Once the union files for an election based on signed cards, it can take months before an election is scheduled. For example, it took the United Autoworkers six months to get an election at Boston College once a petition was filed.

It can take months or even a year or more after an election before bargaining starts: 

Once an election is held, both the union and the employer may file legal challenges that can delay a final decision for many months, or longer. For example, a Harvard Crimson article reported that following an initial election at Harvard, legal challenges delayed an outcome and required a second election a full year and five months later. Bargaining for a contract may not begin for months following the election even if legal challenges are not raised.

Bargaining a contract can take years: 

While we are unable to predict what will happen in bargaining, negotiating a collective bargaining agreement for hundreds or thousands of graduate students in different disciplines, with different majors in different colleges is complex, and could take a very long time.  The first contract New York University negotiated with its graduate union took 18 months to bargain.  It took approximately 18 months to negotiate the part-time faculty contract here at Northeastern.

Who will be left standing?: 

The examples above demonstrate that it could take 3 or more years from the filing of a petition to see a negotiated contract…and no petition has even been filed yet for Northeastern.  The Autoworkers know this well.  It is reasonable to ask what the value in pursuing a union is if many SGAs, including some of the union organizers, will no longer be graduate students at Northeastern by the time an agreement is reached.

Union Talking Points Explained

The United Autoworkers Union has been messaging students directly and through social media for many months now and some students have raised questions about the Union’s messaging, and the accuracy of what the Union claims.  We have helped translate the Union election messaging below so students can understand what is accurate and inaccurate about what they read and hear.

Union ClaimsThe Reality
University messages are misleadingFederal law requires employers to be truthful in communications concerning union organizing and elections.  Northeastern encourages graduate students to learn about unions and communicates truthfully – as required by law – about what it means to have a union and how the bargaining process actually works.
The Union will get you more moneyUnder federal law, unions are free to make all sorts of promises during an organizing campaign, while employers are not permitted to make any promises. The law treats employers and unions differently and the truth is unions have no idea if they can keep promises such as a guarantee for higher student pay because labor negotiations are unpredictable.While bargaining is uncertain, you can expect to pay unions dues or fees. At NYU, where the United Autoworkers represent graduate students, the union charges students dues that are 2% of gross student compensation, along with a $50 union initiation fee.
At universities such as NYU, the Union has bargained for higher pay to help “keep our families fed, and the lights on”NYU graduate student pay increases are significantly offset by union dues. Consider the following net pay increases graduate students received after accounting for United Autoworkers union dues.TA: .75% for 2023, 1% for 2024 and 1% for 2025RA: .5% for 2023, .5% for 2024 and .5% for 2025Hourly grad students:  .87% for 2023, .5% for 2024 and 1.4% for 2025
The Union will get you “affordable” insuranceAs with promises for more money, any union promise to deliver “affordable” insurance is misleading because the union has no idea what will happen with insurance coverage or costs in the future, nor can it predict what might happen in bargaining. Right now, all PhD students have fully covered access to health insurance and access to dental care as the union acknowledges on its website.
The Union will have a “seat at the table” for you.Unless you are on the union’s bargaining team, you will not be sitting at the table.  Graduate students currently have multiple seats at the table with their PI, department and college, as well as with the university through graduate governance.  In each instance, interests and needs specific to students can be examined and addressed.Unions typically demand that employers deal with them directly, and not students, on all terms and conditions of student teaching and research work.  This leaves all students with only one seat at the table, with decisions that impact all students typically being made by a small group of union negotiators.  If the United Autoworkers makes this demand, your ability to work directly with your, PI, department or college on these issues would change and be limited.It is reasonable to question how your individual interests and concerns can be addressed in a single contract covering graduate students across multiple disciplines, departments and colleges.
The Union will get you a harassment and discrimination grievance processNortheastern already has a robust Title IX complaint process available for students to make confidential complaints. Northeastern is also consistently enhancing efforts to prevent incidents of sexual harassment and assault, and has taken many proactive steps in this regard, such as expanding bystander intervention and regularly conducting harassment and assault training across the university community. Northeastern also conducts proactive climate surveys, established a resource center and is the first higher education institution in Boston to execute a cooperation agreement with local law enforcement. Steps are consistently being taken to provide a safe, secure and supportive learning environment for students. Students may also bring confidential grievances and concerns to the University graduate ombuds office.This union promised Harvard graduate students that if elected, it would get them a harassment and discrimination grievance process. The union was elected but never delivered on that promise. At NYU where the United Autoworkers represent graduate students, it negotiated nothing more than a requirement that the university post its sexual harassment policy. The Harvard and NYU examples show that just like union promises of higher pay, promises for a harassment and discrimination grievance process may never come true.
Northeastern intimidated and targeted graduate student union organizers who were engaged in chalking union messages on campusThe National Labor Relations Board dismissed the union’s unfair labor practice charge against Northeastern for allegedly harassing and intimidating graduate students for taking part in protected union activity (“chalking”), finding no merit in the union’s claims.

Points of View

Read selected news and opinion pieces about student unionization.

No Pay for Striking Graduate Students
MLive (Published 3 April 2023)

Let’s Be Skeptical of Princeton Graduate Student United
The Daily Princetonian (Published 20 March 2023)

Op-ed: Making the case against graduate students unionizing: IU News
Indiana University News (Published 9 April, 2022)

The False Hope Of Graduate Student Unions (
Forbes (Published 28 May, 2017)

POV: Unionizing BU Grad Students Would Be a Mistake | BU Today | Boston University
Boston University Today (Published 27 March, 2017)

What happens when the union’s views aren’t yours?
Columbia Spectator (Published 1 December 2016)

Engineering and Applied Science faculty are deeply concerned about student unionization
Columbia Spectator (Published 2 December 2016)

Barnard contingent faculty union negotiations remain stalled in midst of strike authorization vote
Columbia Spectator (Published 2 December 2016)

Vote “No” to the Harvard Graduate Student Union, “Yes” to More Discussion
The Harvard Crimson (Published 16 November 2016)

Students Opposing Unionization Escalate Activity As Vote Nears
The Harvard Crimson (Published 14 November 2016)

Graduate Students: CGSU Coerces Members With ‘Emotional Blackmail’
The Cornell Daily Sun (Published 13 November 2016)

Six Arguments
Graduate Student Unionization: A Critical Approach. Arguments against the Unionization of Graduate Students at Harvard (4 November 2016)

University to Give Thousands of Students’ Information to Labor Board
Columbia Spectator (Published 26 October 2016)

‘At What Cost’ Group Challenges Unilateral Actions, Exclusivity of Grad Student Union Campaign
The Cornell Daily Sun (Published 25 October 2016)

Welcome to At What Cost
At What Co$t (Published 17 October 2016)

Graduate workers will be paying more than dues for unionization
Columbia Spectator (Published 6 October 2016)

Editorial: Questions on graduate student unionization
The Daily Princetonian (Published 4 October 2016)

Summary of Union Grievances at NYU and Yale
Office of Legal Counsel, University of Chicago (Published 29 September 2016)

Forum: Yale graduate students receive free education, health care, and stipends
New Haven Register (Published 10 September 2016)

HANSEN: Why I oppose unionization of graduate students
Yale Daily News (Published 9 September, 2016)

NLRB’s Columbia Decision Marks New Federal Encroachment on Campuses
Huffington Post (Published 9 September 2016)

Why I Oppose Unionization of Graduate Students
Yale Daily News (Published 9 September 2016)

Grad Student Unionization: Unmanageable Quagmire or Elegant Distinction?
Inside Higher Ed (Published 8 September 2016)

NLRB’s Graduate-Assistant Ruling: Bad News for Administrators and Students
The Chronicle of Higher Education (Published 7 September 2016)

Beyond Bargaining: Consequences of NLRB’s Graduate Students Decision
Huffington Post (Published 29 August 2016)

The Faculty Logic of the NLRB College Student Unionization Ruling
Forbes (Published 25 August 2016)

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions About Graduate Students and Unions

Why are people suddenly talking about graduate student unions?

For many years, the National Labor Relations Board, the agency that administers the National Labor Relations Act, held that graduate student assistants at private universities are not employees covered by the NLRA because their relationship with their universities was an educational, not an economic one.

In the summer of 2016, however, in a decision involving Columbia University, the NLRB reversed that long-standing precedent and ruled that, under certain circumstances, private university graduate teaching and research assistants may be considered employees for purposes of the NLRA and may be represented by unions.

Would union representation of graduate students have an impact on their participation in the co-op program or other experiential opportunities?

At this point, we do not know. What we should be concerned about is whether the NLRB would require Northeastern to bargain with a union representing graduate students over the terms of co-op placements. For instance:

  • Unionization of graduate students could alter the eligibility of graduate students to participate in a co-op program and could affect the relationship that students have with co-op employers.
  • Some employers who are concerned about being interpreted to be a joint employer with the university, rather than as a separate employer, might reconsider their participation in the co-op program if graduate students are represented by a union.
  • Many students seek out their own co-ops and the effect of unionization could diminish those opportunities (e.g., under most union contracts, individual employees cannot negotiate their own terms and conditions).

What is a union?

A union is an organization that serves as an external or third-party agent representing a specific group of employees. This group is called a “bargaining unit.” Most unions are large, national organizations with local chapters. Newly formed groups will usually affiliate with an established labor union. The established union has organizers who work fulltime for the union. The union organizers may or may not have a background in higher education. Some of the unions currently seeking to organize in higher education include the United Auto Workers and Service Employees International Union. These organizations typically represent workers in occupations with no connection to higher education.

Why would a union want to represent graduate students?

All union members must pay dues to the union, which are typically a percentage of the members’ compensation. In most collective bargaining relationships, even those who do not become union members are required to pay an agency service fee, which is roughly equivalent to the union membership dues.

How does a group of employees become unionized?

The process typically begins with a paid organizer(s) from a union. Organizers will engage in discussions with those identified as potential members. Those discussions may then lead to efforts by union organizers to collect “authorization cards” from those they want to unionize.

Authorization cards are legally binding written declarations signed by potential members of a proposed collective bargaining unit stating that they want a particular union to be their exclusive representative for the purposes of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment with their employer.

If a union can collect enough cards to constitute a valid “showing of interest” (generally a showing that 30 percent or more of the potential members the union seeks to represent have signed cards), it can file a “representation petition” with the NLRB. The NLRB will then hold a secret-ballot election to determine whether the union would represent the entire group covered by the election.

It is important to remember that each eligible voter is free to vote however he or she wishes in the secret-ballot election, regardless of whether he or she has previously signed an authorization card. While the card is legally binding for the purposes of a union getting approval for an election, signing a card does not require an eligible voter to vote for a union.

In the event you are presented with an authorization card to sign, we urge you to become educated about union representation and collective bargaining before considering signing.

How do unions obtain the right to be the exclusive external representative of employees?

Union representation is determined by a secret-ballot election in which those deemed by the NLRB to be eligible to be in the proposed bargaining unit are entitled to vote “yes” or “no” on the question of whether they want union representation. If a majority of those who actually vote choose union representation, all eligible voters would be exclusively represented by the union in their dealings with the university concerning pay, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment.

Who should vote?

In the event of an election, every eligible person should vote, because the election outcome is determined solely by the majority of votes, not a majority of those eligible to vote. Thus, union representation for non-voters will be decided by those who vote.

For example, if one hundred individuals are identified as eligible to vote, but only ten actually vote, the future of the entire one hundred is determined by the ten who have voted. Eligible voters are people who are part of the NLRB-approved defined voting unit at the time of the election.

Will students have access to a draft of any proposed contract or a list of provisions that a union would seek to negotiate prior to a vote on unionization?

No. The union may show you contracts from other places, but Northeastern would not be bound by those contracts. If there were a graduate student union, then Northeastern and the union would have to engage in collective bargaining with respect to “wages, hours, and other terms of employment,” which are broad concepts. Bargaining does not occur until after the union has won the representation election. The union’s agenda for bargaining is typically determined sometime after election by union leadership in discussion with its members.

If a union election was held, could graduate students “opt out” of union representation 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 do not have a chance to vote. By refraining from voting, a student would be essentially casting a ballot for union representation because the lower the actual voter turnout, the fewer number of votes a union needs to win the election.

Who might be in a graduate student union?

Under federal labor law, members of a bargaining unit must have enough in common that they are deemed to share a “community of interest.” It is impossible to predict who would be in a proposed graduate student bargaining unit. Usually, the NLRB gives unions wide leeway to decide who has a community of interest and therefore should be grouped together in a bargaining unit. It is possible that graduate students seeking different degrees, studying in different colleges and different programs within colleges, and doing different research or teaching may be grouped together and bound by the same terms and conditions as negotiated by the union for all.

Would status as an international graduate student impact inclusion in a union?

The process for determining who is included in the bargaining unit applies to all graduate students regardless of international status. However, it is not yet known whether inclusion in a union may impact rights or privileges associated with visa classification. It is not yet known whether union membership may impact hours of work or training opportunities related to visa classification. For example, if a graduate student’s research assistantship is considered employment, it is unclear whether that limits co-op, experiential, or OPT opportunities for international graduate students.

What happens if a union wins an election?

The union would become the exclusive external representative of the bargaining unit, including those who voted against union representation or did not vote. This means that the union has the exclusive legal right to negotiate collective terms and conditions of employment, such as pay and benefits, for the entire group. Because the union represents everyone in the bargaining unit, individual students may be bound by a decision with which they do not necessarily agree or that they may not feel would be of benefit to them.

It is important to understand that if a union is established, individual students would not be able to make individual arrangements or opportunities for themselves that differ from the terms and conditions established through collective bargaining by the union. Thus, the university could not make separate arrangements with individual students based upon distinct or individual needs or interests with respect to their teaching and research, but, instead, would have to negotiate these items directly with the union.

Some examples of how the graduate student experience may change:

  • There may be limitations on how assistants are selected and/or compensated.
  • Disputes that arise under the contract would be decided by an external labor arbitrator.
  • The union may institute punishments, such as fines, for various infractions such as coming to work during a strike.

Broadly, the union will be deciding what it thinks is best for graduate students.

If a union wins an election, will graduate students’ stipends and teaching compensation increase and/or will my benefits be enhanced?

Not necessarily. There is a common misperception that current stipend levels, other forms of pay, and benefits serve as a floor and can only grow with collective bargaining. In fact, there are three possible outcomes in collective bargaining. In a collective process, members of the bargaining unit can get less than they had before negotiations began, they can get the same as they had when the negotiations began, or they can enhance what they had when the negotiations began. There are no guarantees in collective bargaining.

What are union dues and how are they calculated?

Union dues are the cost of membership in a union. They are used to fund the various activities of the union. At New York University, the only private institution whose graduate students are organized, the UAW charges its members 2 percent of total compensation paid to graduate students during the semesters in which they are “employed.” The dues are automatically deducted from the graduate student’s remuneration for teaching or research. According to the UAW, total compensation for purposes of dues includes “wages” from “union work” (i.e., from serving as a teaching assistant and/or research assistant) and the students’ aid package from NYU.

It is unclear why UAW charges members based on a funding package that exists separate and apart from any obligation to teach or conduct research. In addition to dues, the UAW charges each member an initiation fee of approximately $50. This is charged by the union to all current and future students.

What are agency fees and how are they calculated?

In states like Massachusetts which are not “right to work” states, it is legal for a collective bargaining agreement to require students represented by a union to either pay union dues (see above) or an “agency service fee” as a “condition of employment” with their “employer.” An agency service fee is a payment to the union that reflects the cost of administering the collective bargaining agreement and representation by the union. It is usually very close in amount to full union dues. If a union representing graduate students negotiates an agency service fee requirement into a collective bargaining agreement, graduate student assistants covered by the collective bargaining agreement who choose not to become dues-paying members of the union would still have to pay an agency fee. The union has the right to demand that those who do not want to pay dues or the agency fee must be terminated from their assistantships.

What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is the process in which an employer and a union representing members of a bargaining unit negotiate over the members’ wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.

How frequently are an employer and a union required to meet when they are engaged in collective bargaining?

The law does not require any specific frequency of meetings. It simply requires that the parties “meet at reasonable times and confer in good faith.”

If a union was formed, what would happen to graduate student assistants’ pay and benefits while the collective bargaining agreement is being negotiated?

Typically, there would be no increases in remuneration or enhancements to benefits during negotiations because, as a rule, wages and benefits are subject to bargaining and cannot be changed without mutual agreement of the parties.

Does the law require the parties to complete their negotiations within a certain time period?

No. It often takes a year or more to negotiate a first collective bargaining agreement. As noted above, during this period of negotiations, all conditions usually remain frozen where they were at the time of the union election.

What would happen if the students went on strike?

If the union called a strike requiring students in the bargaining unit to stop their teaching and research duties, the university could temporarily or permanently replace those striking graduate student assistants. In addition, the university could stop providing students with assistantship monies while they were on strike.

Even if the university did not replace striking graduate student assistants, the time lost to a strike could delay a student’s completion of his or her studies and result in a delay in academic progress and payment of additional tuition in order to complete his or her academic program. Those students who chose to work during a strike could be subject to fines or other action by the union.

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