Frequently Asked Questions

The following questions were collected this past winter from graduate and professional students of the Washington University in St. Louis community through an open survey. In the past months, student leaders sought out resources and answered questions to the best of our knowledge. These questions center on the process of unionization, legal concerns, WashU structure concerns, and possible costs and benefits of unionization for Washington University graduate students.

The Process

1.1 Do all programs have to unionize in the same union? What is the opt-out structure? (Can they opt-out of the union, can they opt-out of associated benefits, can they gain benefits without paying)

No, all programs do not have to unionize in the same union. Both public and private universities have provisions for exclusion of certain programs depending on department, employee title, or a combination of both. However, many other universities include all graduate student workers into their union.

The programs that are included in each union negotiation (deemed a bargaining unit), are left at the discretion of the National Labor Relations Board representative before the votes to establish a union are cast. The NLRB determines the appropriateness of a bargaining unit based on those within the unit having similar interests around hours, wages, and workplace conditions termed a community of interest. They also consider the desires of the employees concerned in regards to forming a union. The opt-out structure of program/unit before a union is formed hinges on establishing to the NLRB representative that a unit does not have the same “community of interest” to be included in the bargaining unit. This is done by the employer or the employee representative. There is no opt-out structure afterwards for a program.

1.2 How do disagreements within the union get resolved?

This is a question that is dependent on the international and local bylaws of an elected union. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) International Constitution has 29 rules governing ordered debate among members during regularly scheduled local union meetings to resolve disagreements. Generally, debate is decided by majority vote unless other rules provide for stipulations.6 Local bylaws, which could affect debate resolution, are constructed after a local union is established.

1.3 How would the union communicate with students? What will their transparency be?

Communication and transparency are defined mostly not by international union bylaws but by the local bylaws of a union and therefore it cannot be known until the union is established. An example of communication rules that could be included in local bylaws are given by UCONN’s Graduate Employee Union and states that the bargaining committee will be in regular communication with its membership regarding negotiation issues and membership meetings.

1.4 How would the union function? How would representatives be chosen? Who would the representatives be?

A union functions through collective bargaining between the union and the employer on issues of working conditions, wages, and benefits. The framework for how an individual union functions is dependent on the international and local bylaws of the elected union. SEIU’s International Union Constitution is available and would be the structure for how the local graduate employee union would function under the SEIU bylaws. The local union will also perform in accordance to local bylaws that are agreed upon by a local union membership vote and the international union. This allows for graduate student and WashU specific governing rules to be outlined. These local bylaws would be agreed upon after the union is established. 

Union representatives would be WashU graduate workers that are members of the elected union. Generally, unions elect representatives to the bargaining committee through a membership wide vote. Some unions make stipulations that representatives need to come from the variety of programs represented by the union. The specifics of how many representatives and from what pool the representatives will be chosen is dependent on the language of the bylaws constructed after the union is established.

1.5 How will negotiations work? Will all members vote on a contract?

Negotiations will occur after the union is certified through a bargaining unit wide vote totaling more than 50% in favor of unionization. During the negotiation between the bargaining committee and the administration both parties have a mutual obligation to negotiate in good faith. The exact details of how negotiations occur and the communication with membership is dependent on the local bylaws of the elected union. An example of the negotiation steps, outlined by United Auto Workers (UAW) labor union, would include:

(1) The formation of a bargaining committee composed of members of the union and elected by members of the union.

(2) The distribution of bargaining surveys to union members to understand the priorities and define what members want included in the contract.

(3) A vote by union members to approve the bargaining goals based on the survey responses.

(4) The negotiation of the bargaining goals between the bargaining committee and the administration

(5) The drafting of union contract based on those negotiations called a tentative agreement.

(6) Final vote by all union members to approve union contract.

 1.6 What are the timeline, process, and exact steps associated with forming a union? How long does this process take? Will it benefit those who are presently here? How will it impact recruiting and/or students in the future?

If union organizers can collect enough cards to constitute a valid “showing of interest” among the group that the union seeks to represent (the “bargaining unit”), the union can file a “representation petition” with the NLRB. The NLRB will review that petition and, if the NLRB determines that the authorization cards demonstrate at least 30% support among all the employees in the proposed bargaining unit, it will process the petition and call for an election. Once the petition is filed with the Board, the authorization cards serve no further purpose. 

The time course is uncertain. Some school reported that it took 6 months from the completion of the petition. If the process happens quickly enough, it is possible that we will have a union-led negotiation completed by the beginning of the 2017-2018 academic year though realistically it is not likely until the 2018-2019 academic year. (It took NYU 14 months of negotiation before the first contract.)

1.7 What items will a possible contract include?

Although the exact terms of the possible contracts are uncertain, the sample contracts below can give us clues.

The first one is between Washington University & SEIU Local 1 on behalf of the Adjunct Faculty that just went through earlier this year. This is an agreement bargained by the same Union that was seeking representation of WashU graduate students this year: 

 This one is between New York University & UAW, on behalf of Graduate Students. This was the first graduate student unionization at a private school:

Finally, this one is between University of Washington & UAW on behalf of Graduate Students. This might be most similar to WashU in structure, since UWashington has a large medical school with many Research Assistants:

1.8 Why did we choose SEIU? Who chose SEIU?

We did not choose SEIU. SEIU decided to assist in the unionization effort at Wash U. Because they were leading the petition effort, they would have been the one to represent our union if the voting happened as a result of their petition process. Alternatively, a student organization can collect petitions, vote on unionization without a union affiliation, and later choose who to work with. This is what Columbia University graduate students did.

1.9 What are the dues? How are they calculated? What are dues spent on? What if an individual cannot afford the dues or refuses to pay the dues?

Union dues are a regular payment of money made by members of unions (i.e., the membership fee).

The precise amount of due cannot be predicted until the contract between Wash U grad students and a union is finalized. Just for a reference, SEIU local 503’s rate is 1.7% of the gross pay plus $2.75 per month ( and UAW’s general rate is 1.44% although NYU grad students pay 2% (, so we can expect a similar rate. For example, a teaching fellow who receives $ 22,220.00 per year would pay $444 per year in dues at a 2% rate. 

According to SEIU local 1 that represents Wash U adjuncts and likely to represent Wash U graduate students, the dues are used for (

  • Negotiating contracts
  • Defending members rights and enforcing the contracts
  • Strike, welfare, defense and other worker funds
  • Uniting with more workers so our own wages and benefits are not weakened
  • Outreach, education, and publications for union programs
  • Office rents, travel, supplies, and administration
  • Winning legislation that improves workers’ lives
  • Membership in SEIU International and Change to Win to build alliances with workers across the country

Federal labor law allows unions to propose in collective bargaining that members of the bargaining unit either become dues-paying union members or pay the union a similar fee, referred to as an agency or representation fee. Depending on the contract in force, failure to pay dues could result in dismissal from a teaching or research appointment. This is a negotiable item but most unions insist on such a clause in the collective bargaining agreement to ensure payment of dues.

Legal Concerns

2.1 How does a union impact our taxing status and ability to defer student loan payments?

The decision to unionize should have no effect on your taxes (ceterus paribus).  Your income will still be taxable in the same manner as always as ordinary income.  IRC Section 61 defines gross income and wages fall squarely within it.  There is no deduction or other tax benefit that will accrue following a potential unionization.

2.2 How does this union and “Right to Work” interact?

Missouri recently enacted so called “Right to Work” legislation.  It means that you can elect not to pay union dues.  The union is by law obligated to represent all employees regardless of whether they pay dues.  Unions dislike “Right to Work” legislation because it decreases the dues that they collect and therefore the union itself has less money.  In theory, if everyone takes advantage of this, the union will not be funded.  It is an affirmative opt out however, and likely many people will not do so.

2.3 What protections will a union offer in terms of benefits, working time, etc.  beyond present university policies?

The union will likely offer a pension and benefit plan. Unfortunately, it is likely that you will not realize the full benefit because students will not remain employed by the university long enough to fully vest into their benefits. This would likely result in students paying into the plan and not receive the benefits from it because they graduate and move on before becoming fully vested (which means that they will lose the unvested portion of their retirement benefits). 

Other things that a union could offer are health, dental, vision plans etc.

2.4 What are a few key laws that I should use to better understand this situation?

  • National Labor Relations Act
  • Landrum-Griffin Act
  • Fair Labor Standards Act
  • Occupational Safety and Health Act
  • Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974
  • NLRB Rules and Regulations

2.5 Would the union provide legal representation in university disputes?

The union will have a legal defense fund as well as lawyers who would represent union members on employment related matters.

WashU Structure Concerns

3.1 How will different departments be affected? How will benefits be negotiated for different sections of the population?

As unionization functions, it is difficult to say exactly how each department will be affected. Basically, through the process each individual who is represented by the union will have a vote on the contract. It is unlikely that a contract which is unfavorable to the majority of students within the union would be passed through such a procedure, but this is not guaranteed. To know more about how your own department could be affected, it may be worthwhile to know the relative sizes of the departments. Further, it is quite possible that this negotiation could be tiered, and the benefits may differ depending upon the type of work, school, etc. associated with the program. However, it is also possible that those negotiating this contract would cause a similar contract to be adopted across other segments of the population. (E.g. If one department decides to unionize, it is likely that the contract they negotiate will affect other contracts, for better or worse.)

3.2 How will we balance the concerns of various students in varied programs? Who will pay and who will benefit?

Based on the distribution of students and the typical voting structure of unions, it will be important that individuals vote with the understanding that they are voting for all graduate student workers who would exist under the union. Beyond that, there appears to be little that could be put into place to balance the concerns across varied departments. If this were of serious concern, individuals may want to consider how the team that negotiates contracts is developed. For example, should varied departments be represented at that meeting? Based on the structure of the union and the distribution of students it is unclear who would pay and who would benefit. While the union would give different weight to the voice of graduate students, it does not necessarily mean that desired changes would occur. As it stands, due to the uniqueness of our university and its structure, it is rather difficult for us to foretell what may or may not occur in the future in terms of costs and benefits.

Costs & Benefits

4.1 How does an agreement between WashU and a union impact outside funding relationships? How will it impact internal funding streams?

At this time, we cannot be certain of exactly how this will impact funding streams that are both internal and external as there are a great variety. In general, it appears that a union would be most likely to request a change in institutional funding for students it supports, meaning decisions of the union may have less of an impact on the stipends of individuals who are funded through grants. However, it is difficult to know for certain exactly how such events will unfold as they have gone differently at varied institutions. 

4.2 How will stipends be affected across all departments? Would we be eligible for retirement benefits? How would these benefits transfer? Would those who have advanced degrees gain higher stipends? Would different schools pay at different rates as they do now?

These are all questions which could not be answered until a union would be formed. In past cases, many stipends have been increased as a result of unionization, but dues are also required to be paid from that increase in salary. It is unlikely that retirement benefits would be extended or differential pay would be introduced, but if the union decided to work toward these goals, and the administration saw these steps as positive, then it could happen. It is possible that the union could move to equalize salaries, but it is also possible that the union will choose to have a segmented payment system where certain programs pay different amounts. At present this is decided at the level of “school” (e.g. the School of Arts & Sciences or the School of Medicine).

4.3 How will faculty/PI/Program directors respond? Will students be able to negotiate their employment with their PI’s?

It is impossible to say how all faculty/PI will respond to a possible unionization. While the faculty may in principle support unions, they may not support the unionizing of graduate students and vice-versa. The ability to negotiate employment directly with your PI will depend upon the nature of the union and the contract that it signs. Unfortunately, we do not have details on how this will unfold at this time.

4.4 How will this impact our dynamic costs of each program (travel funding, research funding, sick days, vacation days, number of students per program, etc)?

After forming a union, the bargaining unit can negotiate and set a contract that stipulates the terms. The terms could theoretically be the exact same as current, or it can be improved in some areas depending on what the students and administration agree on. The contract affects the students only insofar as it stipulates the terms of their employment conditions, such as hours worked, work done, work paid, payment amount, etc. The structure and size of the program will be decided by the administrators as a separate decision to the student employment contract. It I not likely to be heavily influenced by it if the university has sufficient budget and revenue to allocate toward the departments.

4.5 How will this change how students interact with administration?

After forming a union, the student employees will have a written contract with the administration. Communication will be easier insofar as there will be less ambiguity and opaqueness around terms and expectations. Students will also have the ability to interact with administration formally, and more regularly, in a legally-recognized way, about topics important to them, as opposed to current meeting patterns.

4.6 How will this impact schedules for students? How will striking work with time-sensitive experimentation?

In terms of everyday responsibilities, it is unclear what any contract that is agreed upon may include. While a contract could be created to limit time spent in labs or teaching, this is not highly likely as students will be the ones approving this contract, and students rarely like to be limited in this way. However, responsibilities and hours could be stipulated very differently through this contract.

Some students will be motivated and passionate to take a bigger role in driving the union efforts and decisions. Other students’ schedules will be affected only as much as they want to contribute to union decisions and votes. They need not take much time out of their days, as they will be represented by student leaders.

It has been extremely rare that graduate students in union strike. That is a nuclear option. It is very costly to the university financially and reputational that if the university is able to accommodate reasonable demands, they will do so before striking is needed. Therefore, if student demands are reasonable, and university administration has the means to comply without undue burden, a strike is not likely to be needed.

4.7 What power do individuals and departments have in union decision-making? How are key issues for negotiation decided?

Representative leaders of the union will be graduate students, and they will represent the voices of their constituents. Ultimately, it will depend on the bargaining units that are developed, as each bargaining unit will be responsible for a contract that has authority and coverage only over their specific bargaining unit. It also depends on the labor union that organizes (ie. SEIU v UAW) whether the actual negotiations are student-driven or union-staff-rep driven. The specifications of who sits in the meeting and drafts the terms are specifications to be decided after the union governing body has formed.

4.8 What prompted the interest in unionization?

Private University graduate students have only this past summer gained the right to unionize that public university graduate students have had for decades. The movement toward unionizing to protect graduate students, and adjunct professors, stems for the awareness that their highly-skilled labor is tremendously undervalued and underpaid, and that the compensation is lower than market wages because universities wield power and control over student mobility and decisions. In the past, it was thought that universities did not have the means to compensate market wages because the university does not operate as a market-oriented corporation does. But increasingly, that is becoming less true, as university endowments resemble venture funds, technology licensing and patent offices churn out remarkably lucrative R&D projects, university academic programming includes fewer tenured-faculty teachers and many more adjunct and graduate student teachers, universities invest in monetizing schemes such as corporate-academic partnerships and outsourced online-courses and etc.

4.9 Will anyone lose benefits through association with the union?

The main purpose of unionizing is to increase pay and improve benefits. Unions standardly negotiate for a pay increase in excess of union dues so that workers end up netting more income. If we try to unionize and fail, there is no reason to expect the university to decrease pay or benefits (say, in retaliation). If we successfully unionize and get the university to agree to higher pay and better benefits, we may have to accept certain changes to our working conditions. For instance, more TA hours may be required, or TAs might have to teach their own classes.

4.10 What are the exact benefits individuals are hoping to gain through the union? What are the realistic goals that a union can obtain? What do we know they cannot obtain?

The most common reasons cited for wanting to unionize have to do with pay and benefits. Many students feel they are underpaid, and many believe their health plan should include subsidized dental and optical. Subsidies for dependent healthcare and childcare have also been cited. Existing graduate worker unions have successfully negotiated for all of these. The numbers vary, but we might expect something like an initial pay increase of 3%-5% (with union dues around 2%), annual raises of 2%-3%, an extension of the existing 90% subsidy for health insurance to include dental and optical, a dependent healthcare subsidy of up to 75%, and a childcare subsidy of up to $3500 per year (all of these numbers are rough, and the last two benefits are particularly variable among existing unions). Other benefits several graduate worker unions have attained include caps on class sizes and guaranteed reassignment in the event that a class gets canceled. Unions are, of course, limited in what they can obtain, and the university’s resources are limited as well. So we should expect improvements to be relatively modest. Also, since a union would only represent us as workers, we would remain subject to, for instance, having our employment terminated for academic reasons. Finally, unionizing has the inherent benefit of establishing bargaining power, which helps prevent the university from making unexpected changes to the terms of employment for graduate workers. This power depends on the size of the union (more members is better).


5.1 How is this working for others who have done it?

Results vary from one university to the next. Overall, graduate workers who have unionized have improved their financial situations (pay as well as benefits). After unionizing, some universities have seen decreased admissions to programs, leaving more work to be distributed among current students (though workload is typically limited by union contracts). Notably, union leaders at several universities have expressed dissatisfaction with SEIU. They apparently have a reputation for being effective at mobilizing but operating in a way that is not highly transparent or democratic in the long term. Those who have unionized with AFT and UAW seem to be more satisfied with their level of autonomy and participation.

5.2 Is it possible to gain what students want without unionizing?

It is possible to gain benefits like pay increases, improved benefits, etc. without unionizing. Bodies like GSS and GPC have managed to get certain benefits for graduate students (like health insurance) by appealing to the university. These bodies, however, lack the bargaining power of a union, so their appeals can be simply rejected by the university without contest. A union likely would be much more effective at negotiating with the university, as long as it has significant support among graduate student workers.


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