There are unions for grad students?

They're multiplying and making headway in their effort to increase stipends and benefits
Courtney Chandler
Dec. 1, 2023

In the past several years, graduate student unions have been popping up across the country and becoming more common at colleges and universities. When I started graduate school, I knew next to nothing about unions and even less about graduate student unions. I didn’t even know grad students could unionize.

While unions have been around since the late 1800s, these unions specifically for graduate students made me curious. To learn more, I talked to two graduate students who are a part of such unions — Danea Palmer, a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, and Jonah Rosario Inserra, a graduate student at New York University.

Understanding unions

First, what is a grad student union? Simply put, it is a group of grad students who organize to make decisions about conditions affecting their work. Second, who’s including the union? This answer is a little more complicated and varies by university and the specific unions themselves.

Jonah Rosario Inserra

For example, the University of Michigan has a union that includes teaching assistants (both graduate and undergraduate), but not graduate research assistants. At NYU, Inserra said, their current union contract includes research assistants, graduate students working admin or other miscellaneous jobs employed by NYU, and anyone teaching or grading a course (although Inserra said there are a few nuances with this last category).

At UCSD, the grad student union also includes grad student researchers and teaching assistants. “It was a more recent push to get researchers unionized,” Palmer said. “I’m very excited that it did happen.”

Do unions matter?

To understand why unions may matter, let’s discuss what happens at universities where they don’t exist.

Where I went to grad school, a small group of graduate students from the graduate student association would meet quarterly with university leadership, including the president of the university and the dean of the graduate school. These meetings were our chance to ask for changes to improve graduate student working conditions. We would lay out our key asks, which often focused on increasing stipends, guaranteeing time off and improving benefits, such as health insurance. And we would make the case for why they were needed.

In my experience, the overall process was slow: It took about three years to finally get a 5% stipend raise. (Note: I don’t know how the process has changed since I graduated in 2019.)

Danea Palmer

Palmer spoke about the benefits of unions. “The collective power of us all being in a union can get a lot of things done,” she said. “The union here has helped keep housing prices down at the university, and we’ve gotten huge raises recently, secured child-care benefits, and established bullying and harassment protections.”

Palmer noted that UCSD also has a graduate and professional student association. This group also meets with administrators to advocate for student needs. “In my experience, that’s much slower moving compared to the type of pressure that the union provides, which seems to be more effective,” Palmer said.

Inserra said the union at NYU “unquestionably” provides benefits. After a three-week strike in 2021, the union renegotiated its contract to include benefits, including coverage of 95% of healthcare costs, free dental care, yearly pay raises, paid vacation, guaranteed parental leave, as well as a child-care fund.

“Being part of the union also allows workers to file formal grievances with the university for contract violations ranging from harassment to micromanagement and late or incorrect pay at work,” Inserra said. “When that happens, organizers at the union work with the student and on their behalf to make sure any issues are addressed.”

Palmer said the UCSD graduate students can opt into the union. Dues, she said, are a little less than 1.5% of a paycheck. Being a member of the union helps influence the union focus and helps guarantee union representation if you have a grievance against the university. But any union-negotiated benefit (such as a stipend increase) applies to all graduate students, regardless of if they are part of the union or not.

“I was hesitant about joining a union at first because it cost money,” Palmer said. “But I ultimately decided to take advantage of the collective bargaining power.”

Should you chose a school with a union?

Because of the benefits of having a graduate student union, Palmer said, it would be a factor she’d consider if she were applying to grad schools again.

“When I was applying to grad schools for the first time, it absolutely was not on my radar,” she said. “But the way the union stands up for us doesn’t exist in other channels, and I now find that really important.”

Inserra agreed and said that the current climate of higher education makes unions even more important. “At a time when education in general and higher education in particular is under attack both from hostile political currents and general austerity and ‘belt-tightening’ from university administrators, collective bargaining is one of the only tools grad students have to fight back and stand up for themselves,” he said.

Unions have increased in recent years largely due to the benefits they provide. Studies suggest there was an increase from 54 unions in 2021 to 83 by mid 2023. Palmer said she’s not surprised about the increase.

“I think seeing what’s happened in the schools that have unions has prompted other schools to think about strikes and unionizing,” she said. “It’s been exciting to see as it’s spread.”

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Courtney Chandler

Courtney Chandler is a biochemist and microbiologist in Baltimore, Md., and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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