FAQs about student unionization

As many of you probably have read, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), in a case involving Columbia University, has determined that students holding appointments as teaching and research assistants are eligible to organize under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  This reversed a long standing decision involving Brown University where the NLRB determined student assistants were not employees under the NLRA, but were students.  The NLRB in the Columbia case determined that student assistants could be both students and employees.

As a result of this decision, we provide the following Frequently Asked Questions to provide answers to questions the community may have in light of this new decision.

1. What is the NLRB?
2. What is a union?
3. How is a union selected?
4. What are my rights if a union organizer or a fellow student asks me to sign an authorization card?
5. Would all graduate students at MIT be part of a union?
6. What is the election process?
7. If a union won an election at MIT, would I have to join it?
8. What are union dues?
9. What would the union dues be at MIT if students voted for a union?
10. What might be covered in a union contract?
11. How are student interests represented in these negotiations? Will I get input into what should be negotiated into the contract? Who will the leadership of the union be?
12. If a union wins an election, will my stipend increase? What about benefits?
13. Could MIT make exceptions to provisions in the contract to accommodate the needs of individual graduate students?
14. Would a graduate student union at MIT dictate the number of hours I can work as a graduate research assistant in the sciences for positions included in the bargaining unit?
15. What impact could a union have on research activities, such as attendance at conferences, engaging in field work or research conducted at other activities?
16. If MIT wanted to improve a benefit in the contract, would it be able to do so before the expiration of the contract?
17. What would happen to the MIT Graduate Student Council if a union was created?
18. What is MIT’s position on unionization for graduate students?

1.     What is the NLRB?

The NLRB is a federal agency created to enforce the NLRA, a federal law to protect the rights of employees and employers.  The law protects the rights of employees to choose or reject union representation.

2.     What is a union?

A union is an organization that serves as an agent representing a specific group of employees.  This group is called a bargaining unit.  A union negotiates a contract (also known as a collective bargaining agreement) on behalf of the bargaining unit to establish the terms and conditions of employment, including such things as wages, hours of work, benefits and other working conditions.  A union also represents its members when disputes arise over the terms of the contract.

3.     How is a union selected?

Typically, a group of employees who want a union to represent them will affiliate with an established labor union which will attempt to organize a new chapter of that labor union.  The first step in an organizing campaign is for organizers (who could be students and/or employees of the union) to ask students in a potential bargaining unit to sign a document called an authorization card allowing the union to act as their exclusive representative for purposes of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment as graduate assistants.  If the union can collect enough “authorization cards” to constitute a valid “showing of interest”, the union can file a “representation petition” with the NLRB requesting a secret-ballot election to determine if the union should be the exclusive representative a group of employees.

At a minimum, the union can use the authorization cards it collects to require an election if it has signed cards from 30% of the student assistants in the group that it seeks to represent.  However, when a union has collected signed authorization cards from more than 50% of the student assistants in the petitioned for unit, it may request MIT to voluntarily recognize and bargain with the union without holding an election and providing the student assistants in the proposed unit an opportunity to vote.

4.     What are my rights if a union organizer or a fellow student asks me to sign an authorization card?

It is your decision whether or not you want to sign an authorization card, and students have the right to sign, or refuse to sign, without coercion from anyone.  Because signing the card has important implications, you should understand the significance of what your signature represents before you sign it.

5.     Would all graduate students at MIT be part of a union?

Not necessarily.  While all students holding TA and RA positions are eligible to join a union under the current law, the composition of a particular bargaining unit depends on who the union seeks to include in the petition and whether the NLRB finds that the employees in the petition have enough in common such that they share a “community of interest with each other” (e.g., similar occupations, geographic location, duties, payment structure).

6.     What is the election process?

The election process is conducted and supervised by representatives of the NLRB.  An election is typically held within approximately three weeks after the filing of a representation petition by the union.  Secret ballot voting would likely take place on campus in a central location at a designated date and time or by a mail-in process.

The election outcome is determined by a simple majority of those who actually vote, not by a majority of those who are eligible to vote.  Union representation will be determined by voters, and will be binding on both voters and non-voters who hold titles that are included in the collective bargaining unit.

Those who signed authorization cards are not obligated to vote in favor of the union during the secret ballot election. Once a petition is filed with the NLRB, and the showing of interest is confirmed, authorization cards serve no further purpose.

7.     If a union won an election at MIT, would I have to join it?

No.  Under federal law, you cannot be forced to join a union.  However, even if you don’t join the union, the terms of the contract with the union are binding on all employees in the bargaining unit regardless of whether they join the union. In addition, a union can negotiate a provision in a collective bargaining agreement that requires non-members to pay an agency fee to the union in order to be able to serve as a teaching or research assistant.  The agency fee is usually about the same amount as union dues.

8.     What are union dues?

Dues are the cost of membership in a union.  They are used to cover the costs of negotiating a contract, contract administration and resolutions of grievances (claims of breach of contract).  In addition, unions also use dues for the purpose of organizing employees at other employers and to make political contributions.

9.     What would the union dues be at MIT if students voted for a union?

We don’t know.  At NYU, the only private institution where graduate students are currently organized, we understand graduate students who are members of the United Auto Workers of America (UAW) pay 2% of an individual’s hourly wage earned for the semesters in which they are employed, and the dues are automatically deducted from every paycheck.  In addition to dues, the UAW charges each member an initiation fee of approximately $50.

10.   What might be covered in a union contract?

The NLRA requires employers and unions to bargain collectively over “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.”  The NLRB has not yet addressed what “terms and conditions of employment” are for graduate students whose teaching and research is part of their academic training.  In the Columbia Univ. decision, the NLRB stated that academic decisions remain the prerogative of the school but what constitutes an academic versus a non-academic decision is not yet clear.

Some guidance about the terms and conditions that may be addressed in a contract can be gleaned from the contract between NYU and its graduate student teaching and research assistants represented by the UAW.  The terms and conditions of that contract include wages/stipends, working hours, health insurance, travel and meal expenses, leaves of absence, job postings and access to offices.  The contract specifically and exclusively vests in NYU the right to plan, direct and control the university’s mission, programs and objectives; to determine the content and process for performance evaluations, to determine when instruction is delivered; and, in recognition that such matters involve “academic judgment,” the right to determine “who is taught, what is taught, how it is taught, and who does the teaching.”

11.  How are student interests represented in these negotiations?  Will I get input into what should be negotiated into the contract?  Who will the leadership of the union be?

It is up to the union to determine who serves in the leadership, who serves on the negotiating team, and how it solicits and/or considers input from its members.

12.  If a union wins an election, will my stipend increase?  What about benefits?

Stipends that are strictly financial aid support and not linked to teaching or research assistantships would not be subject to collective bargaining.  For stipends that are linked to teaching and research assistantships, which would be subject to bargaining, there is simply no way to know what will happen. However, there is no guarantee that any union can obtain improvements to any economic element.

13.  Could MIT make exceptions to provisions in the contract to accommodate the needs of individual graduate students?

No.  Unless such exceptions are provided for in the contract or otherwise agreed to by the union, they are not permitted.  For example, if a contract set parameters on the work hours for a research assistant, an individual graduate student would not be able to make personal arrangements with their advisor or PI to work outside those parameters, unless the contract provided for exceptions.

14.  Would a graduate student union at MIT dictate the number of hours I can work as a graduate research assistant in the sciences for positions included in the bargaining unit?

We don’t know. The number of and hours of work are issues that are subject to bargaining if the graduate student is receiving compensation for such research.  Since graduate research assistants in the sciences are not included in the bargaining unit at NYU, there is no precedent for how this issue has been addressed at private institutions.

Some public universities have graduate student unions. However, it is difficult to compare MIT, as a private university, to the situations at public universities because state law prevails for public universities, but federal law prevails for private universities. State and federal labor laws differ significantly. Many state 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 law is not tailored in that way to address the issues of academic and educational matters related to graduate student activities.

15.  What impact could a union have on research activities, such as attendance at conferences, engaging in field work or research conducted at other activities?

Again, we don’t have an answer to this question.  To the extent such activities are part of a research assistantship, funding for attendance at conferences, travel and other activities could be subject to negotiation with the union.

16.  If MIT wanted to improve a benefit in the contract, would it be able to do so before the expiration of the contract?

MIT would not be able to improve a benefit unless the contract granted MIT the flexibility to do so, or the union consented to the change.  For example, at NYU, the union filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB against NYU after NYU increased stipends and partially subsidized the cost of health insurance for certain doctoral students.

17.  What would happen to the MIT Graduate Student Council if a union was created?

With a union created, the MIT Graduate Student Council would no longer be permitted to discuss or negotiate any issues concerning wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment for members of the bargaining unit. Under federal labor law, once a union wins an election, it becomes the exclusive bargaining representative over all terms and conditions of employment.

18.  What is MIT’s position on unionization for graduate students?

MIT joined with eight other research universities in filing a brief with the NLRB in the Columbia case calling for the NLRB to continue to recognize graduate assistants as students, and not employees. MIT joined this brief because the Institute believes that its relationship with its graduate teaching and research assistants is primarily an educational one and that unionization of graduate students could disrupt academic programs, mentoring and research.  However, the NLRB reached the opposite conclusion. If a union organizing campaign did take place at MIT, MIT would then establish a dialogue and decide its position on the question of the possible creation of that union.

In any case, MIT wants to continue to hear from students in open dialogue about graduate education and students’ needs.