What is a union?

A union is an organization that serves as a third party agent representing a specific group of employees. When a union represents employees, the union is the exclusive representative for those employees with respect to their pay and working conditions. This means that a graduate student assistant represented by a union would not be able to make individualized arrangements with a faculty member about teaching assignments if those arrangements were inconsistent with a collective bargaining agreement – even if those arrangements worked better for the student and the faculty member than what the collective bargaining agreement provided.

Does union representation cost money?

Yes. To support themselves, unions charge their members dues and often negotiate collective bargaining agreements that require employees to join the union or pay an agency service fee as a condition of remaining employed. An agency service fee is equivalent to that portion of the union dues that pay for collective bargaining and contract administration. The agency service fee usually costs almost as much as union dues. Depending on the terms of the labor contract and state law, failure to pay dues or an agency fee could result in dismissal from a teaching or research appointment, which in turn could impact a student’s degree eligibility.


How does a group of employees become unionized? What are “authorization cards”?

The process typically begins with union organizers soliciting employees to sign “authorization cards.” It is very important to understand what those cards are and what effect they can have.

Authorization cards are legal documents used by unions as evidence that a group of employees is interested in union representation. Authorization cards should not be signed without considerable thought, because once signed the cards become the property of the union, they are effective for one year, and cannot be unilaterally revoked. In addition, if at least 30% of the relevant employee group signs cards, the union can file a petition with the NLRB for an election. The outcome of the election binds all eligible employees – whether or not an employee signs an authorization card or participates in the election. We urge you to become educated about union representation and collective bargaining before signing any legally binding union authorization card.


If union organizers approach me outside my classroom or at home, am I under any obligation to speak with them?

No, you have no obligation to speak with a union organizer. Of course, you can choose to do so if you would like to, at a time and location that is acceptable to you and not disruptive to teaching or research activity. Many unions use office and home visits as part of their organizing efforts. Please rest assured that the university has not given any student’s home address or classroom location to any union.


How do union elections work?

Union representation is determined by a secret-ballot election. If a majority of those who vote choose union representation, all eligible voters would be exclusively represented by the union in their dealings with the university concerning stipends, benefits, and other “terms and conditions of employment.” This means that the university could not make individual arrangements with those students with respect to the economic aspects of their teaching and research, but instead would have to negotiate with the union about this.


If a union election were held, could graduate students “opt out” of the union by voting against it or by not voting?

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

For example, consider an election mandated because 30 employees out of a group of 100 signed authorization cards. If only 5 employees turned out to vote, and 3 voted in favor and 2 against, then 3% of the group would have bound the 97 others to exclusive union representation regardless of their desires.


What happens if a union wins an election?

The union would become the exclusive representative of the bargaining unit, including those individuals who voted against union representation or did not vote. The union would have the exclusive legal right to negotiate collective terms and conditions of student assistantships, such as stipends and benefits, for the entire group. Because the union represents everyone in the bargaining unit, whether they want to be represented or not, individual students may be bound by a decision with which they do not necessarily agree.


Would status as an international graduate student impact eligibility to be included in the union?

No. The NLRA does not distinguish between U.S. citizens and non-citizens for purposes of determining eligibility to be included in a bargaining unit.


If a union wins an election, will graduate students receive larger stipends and better benefits?

Nobody knows. There is a common misperception that current stipend levels and benefits serve as a floor and can only improve with collective bargaining. In fact, there are always three possible outcomes in collective bargaining. Members of the bargaining unit can get less than they had before the negotiations began, they can get the same as they had when the negotiations began, or they can get more than they had when the negotiations began. There are no guarantees in collective bargaining. A union can make requests, but an employer is under no obligation to grant the requests.


What are union dues and how are they calculated?

Union dues are the cost of membership in a union. SEIU organizers have stated that graduate students at Washington University would be charged 2.5% of their stipends.