Examples of Graduate Student Unions


  1. What are graduate student unions at other institutions like?
  2. What is an example of a private university with union representation of graduate students?
  3. What research-based evidence exists about graduate student unionization?
  4. How can graduate students learn more about varying views on union representation for graduate students at private universities?

1. What are graduate student unions at other institutions like?

Some public universities, including the University of California system, have graduate student unions. For example, at University of California-Berkeley, teaching assistants are unionized but research assistants are not. 

It is difficult to compare Cornell, as a private university, to the situations at public universities because state labor law prevails for public universities, but federal labor law prevails for private universities. State and federal labor laws differ significantly. Cornell, as a private university, is subject to federal labor law. 

Many state labor laws clearly specify what issues are considered “terms and conditions of employment” and subject to collective bargaining and what issues are “academic” and not subject to collective bargaining. Federal labor law is not tailored in that way to address the issues of academic and educational matters related to graduate student activities.

The amici brief filed by Ivy League and other universities in the Columbia University case decided by the National Labor Relations Board on August 23, 2016, provided insights about potential differences between state and federal labor laws as they may pertain to graduate student labor unions.   

2. What is an example of a private university with union representation of graduate students?

Currently, New York University is the only private university with a recognized union of graduate students. Reviewing the terms of their union contract may be useful. The final collective bargaining agreement, negotiated over 18 months, between NYU and the International Union, UAW, AFL-CIO, and Local 2110, UAW runs from September 1, 2014 – August 31, 2020. 

Union representation elections have been held at other private universities since the August 2013 Columbia decision by the National Labor Relations Board. These include:

  • At Duke University, SEIU petitioned for an election. The election occurred by mail ballot and ballots were tallied on February 3, 2017. There were 2,298 eligible voters; the results of the election were 398 for the union to 691 against the union; 502 ballots were challenged and not yet counted. Following the election, SEIU withdrew their petition on March 7, 2017.
  • At Harvard University, Harvard Grad Students Union HGSU-UAW petitioned for an election. The election occurred by manual ballot on November 16 and 17, 2016. The total number of eligible voters was 3,556. The vote was 1,272 for the union to 1,456 against the union; 314 ballots were challenged and 3 ballots were deemed void. An appeal is underway.
  • At Yale University, Unite-Here petitioned for “microunits,” essentially individual units at the level of an academic department. They later withdrew their microunit request for one unit (Comparative Literature). An election occurred on February 23, 2017. The union was elected in six departments, rejected in one department, and the election was inconclusive in two departments. Yale has requested NLRB review regarding the microunit issue. The case is still pending.
  • At Columbia University, the Graduate Students of Columbia (GWC) with the UAW filed an election petition. The election occurred on December 7 and 8, 2016. The total number of eligible voters was 4,256. The vote was 1,602 for the union to 623 against the union; 647 ballots were challenged, and 3 ballots were deemed void. Columbia University submitted objections to the conduct of the election and requested the results be vacated and a new election held. The case is still pending.

3. A 2013 article (Sean E. Rogers, et al., Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay, 66 ILR Review 487-510) has been mentioned as suggesting that unionization might not interfere with the educational experience of graduate students and might not have negative effects on the student-faculty relationship.

How does this study pertain to graduate education at Cornell?

In the 2013 study, the majority of respondents served only as teaching assistants not research assistants. At Cornell, the collective bargaining unit would include all teaching and research assistants enrolled in the Graduate School (Ithaca & Geneva). The authors themselves point out that “the most troubling questions about the potential impact of union representation … have concerned RAs in the physical and biological sciences.” 

The 2013 study is limited in the number and breadth of departments and the quantity of responses. Only five departments (English, computer science, business, psychology, history) in eight universities (four unionized and four non-unionized) were surveyed with a final response rate of only 22% (516 respondents). This set does not reflect Cornell’s academic breadth of nearly 100 fields of study. Absent from the study are any fields in life sciences, most physical sciences and engineering fields, many social sciences fields, and many specialized humanities fields. These fields bring their own concerns, needs and issues to any discussion of union representation. The study does not answer any questions about how a graduate student union would affect the educational experience or student/faculty relationships in the context of Cornell’s broad range of fields.

​The 2013 study did not examine the pre-union condition at universities vs. the after-union effects at universities, so cannot determine “cause and effect” relationships of unionizing. It is not known if any of those universities prior to unionization already had robust policies and benefits for graduate students, including regular stipend increases and award-winning graduate student support programs.

The 2013 study is based on public institutions, not private ones. The authors themselves point out this weakness in trying to apply their results to the private university context, like Cornell, specifically noting that the “scope of bargaining is often more constrained in the public sector than in the private sector.” This lack of constraint in federal labor law on the issues potentially subject to collective bargaining has implications for private universities, like Cornell, because the lack of clear boundaries could lead to a union seeking to bargain and influence academic decisions and direction, potentially affecting graduate education. Much uncertainty exists about the boundaries between employment and academics in any collective bargaining process for graduate students in private institutions.

The 2013 study should not be considered a definitive analysis regarding the effects of unionization on faculty-student relationships nor on the education of graduate students nor is it possible to generalize or predict based on the study how graduate student unionization might affect Cornell’s diverse fields of study, faculty, or graduate students.

4. How can graduate students learn more about varying views on union representation for graduate students at private universities?

  • Two of the amici briefs filed with the National Labor Relations Board on the Columbia University case provide differing opinions about union representation for graduate students:
    • One brief was submitted by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), presenting reasons supportive of union representation for graduate students.
    • Another brief was submitted by a group of peer institutions (Brown University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Stanford University, Yale University), presenting concerns about union representation for graduate students.
  • The Graduate Student Assembly at Yale expressed serious concerns about the local graduate union activity at that university in October, 2016, passing two resolutions opposing the union organizing efforts of the Local 33 union, and the specific election strategy the union there is pursuing (proposing collective bargaining units at the level of academic departments). The Yale assembly also voted to declare neutrality on graduate student unionization in general, signaling that a graduate student governance group could be both neutral on the general topic of graduate student unionization and take a specific stance on a particular Union or particular union organizing strategy.
    • Graduate students with questions about union representation should freely pose those questions to representatives from CGSU/AFT/NYSUT, either in person, by email, or online to their Facebook page, Twitter, or website.
    • Graduate students are encouraged to talk with one another, with staff, and with faculty about the issues associated with union representation for graduate students.
      Library resources at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations may be a rich source of information.

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