Graduate Student Unionization at Princeton: Costly and Unnecessary

If you’ve been on campus since fall 2016, you’ve probably seen some colorful flyers with strong language posted on bulletin boards and at bus stops announcing one position or another on graduate student unionization. I’d like to write about the potential benefits of unionization, and offer my view that these benefits, even if they came to pass, are not worth the very real costs of unionization. Furthermore, the situation for Princeton graduate students – our financial situation, as well as our representation within the university’s community and administration – is already quite agreeable. I believe the university’s infrastructure has sufficient methods by which graduate students can address complaints and improve our own individual situations if the need arises. A union negotiating on our behalf, in seeking to represent many unique graduate students at once, would miss much of the individual nuance in our diverse situations. I do not believe a union can represent me better than I can represent myself, and I am unwilling to sacrifice my right of self-representation (which I would be forced to do if a union were formed). Graduate student unionization is therefore a costly and unnecessary mistake that we can avoid.

Let’s start with the possible benefits. One line of argument commonly used to promote unionization is the idea that unionized graduate students often see a significant increase in salary. It is true that many graduate students unions have, at other universities, improved graduate student stipends. However, no school with a graduate student union pays its students better than Princeton already does without a union. So while it is tempting to look at statistics in terms of percentage increases to stipends, bear in mind that the absolute dollar amount is often more important. It’s a fine thing, and true, for someone to say to say ‘Look! A grad union at one school increased wages 20%, from $550 a week to $660 a week!’ But that argument should have little weight when you realize that you already make $730 a week. No grad student union has ever successfully negotiated a base rate of pay for its students as high or higher as the one we currently enjoy, so we have no precedent to assume that a Princeton grad student union could push our wages up.

Compensation increases are the most concrete of the potential benefits from unionizing. The others are just promises, with no guarantee of success and even less precedent to draw on than the already-shaky salary argument. The promises that Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU), the pro-union student group at Princeton, makes range from improving housing, to enhancing relationships between grad students and their advisors, to increasing the university’s response to victims of sexual harassment and assault. This line of argument runs into three major problems, though. Firstly, it is dubiously legal. Labor law restricts a union from forcing negotiating on any topics other than (1) wages, (2) hours, and (3) terms and conditions of employment. Anything else, like housing, falls outside this realm; for purposes of this article, let us call them ‘extralabor issues’ (akin to extracurricular activities). The university may take the stance that the three ‘extralabor issues’ outlined above are beyond the scope of a union’s bargaining ability, and ignore any attempts (as is their right under labor law) by the union to negotiate on those topics. To force Princeton to the negotiating table on these topics would entail a long, costly legal battle, which the union may very well still lose.

The second major problem with promising improvements in areas like advisor-grad student relationships is that we’re talking about a labor union. Labor unions are experts on negotiating things like wages and hours, and have legal and professional resources and experience they can use for those types of issues. But what expertise does a union have in mediating the complex relationship between a grad student and a faculty member? On what grounds do they claim to be better at representing victims of sexual assault than the victims themselves or the resources already in place on campus? How can they claim they know the first thing about negotiating for more affordable graduate student housing? With no expertise, I do not see how a union negotiating for me would do anything to these delicate areas other than gum up the works and create more confusion. And I am happy to represent myself if such an issue arose that I felt needed to be addressed; if a union were in place, I could not do so (see below).

Thirdly, to promise that these ‘extralabor issues’ will be made better, the pro-union group should provide clear examples in which the university has deliberately avoided making improvements to them when informed of problems in the system. Note that this is not the same as pointing out times when the university has failed to address or respond appropriately to an issue! Princeton is not perfect, and may have responded poorly in one sphere or another in the past. But have they failed to learn from their mistakes, or ignored legitimate criticisms about their housing policies, sexual assault responses, or advisor/advisee conflict resolutions? The pro-union group has no explicit examples of Princeton faltering in its goal to do everything it can for its students, so how can they claim that a union will make changes better than the one the university already makes for itself? It is not in the university’s interests to ignore our problems, and I see no evidence that they do.

We’ve talked about the benefits, both the plausible and the improbable. Now let us shift gears to look at the costs. The first cost is money; whether I support the union or not, if one forms and I am under its representative umbrella but do not join it, I must still pay the union an ‘agency fee.’ This fee consists of three fees: a local fee, a state fee, and a fee paid to the national union. The local portion of this fee is decided by members of the union here at Princeton. But the national and state fees, which, for AFT and AFT-NJ are $351.36 for the ‘17-‘18 academic year. These are fixed amounts, and we do not have control over them.

It is possible that a union, if formed, would be able to negotiate an increase in wages to cover these fees, so grad students would end up with about the same amount of usable dollars as before (this is about a 2% increase; what I said earlier about more substantial wage increases still holds). But this money must come from somewhere, and the Graduate School has stated that these funds would come at the expense of other services they provide for grad students, since their operating budget is finite.

And what do we get for our money? Loss of autonomy, for one. Under labor law, if a union represents me, I am forbidden from negotiating or discussing (1) wages, (2) hours, and (3) terms and conditions of employment with my employer, who is likewise forbidden from talking directly to me about them. So a casual conversation with my supervisor about working fewer hours one week and making them up the next must instead be an official communication moderated by some union officer (whose availability, promptness, and workload I cannot know at this time). And if something more serious were to come up, I could not try to resolve it myself at the departmental level, or by discussing it with the dean of my school or the Graduate School. Under labor law, I would be forced to pass it along to the union and trust that they understand my situation at least as well as I do. You’ll understand if I have my doubts.

What the union does with my money is out of my direct control as well. It would be nice to assume they used it all for my benefit, but unions may use the money they collect from me to support politics I disagree with, hire lobbyists for issues that affect their other constituents and not me, or to pay into their ‘solidarity fund,’ money used ‘to assist the AFT and its affiliates in participating in legislative and political activities with significant potential impact on members of the AFT and the institutions where they work’ (source: AFT constitution).

So the pro-union group marches on, notably without attempting to meet with administrators to address the problems they’ve put forward before attempting unionization. Graduate students already have a student government that advocates for them, and already hold positions in the administration (such as the budget committee, etc.). We have a strong voice already at Princeton, and live comfortably during our graduate studies. Our pay is generous, and our health benefits (such as free care at McCosh) are the envy of postdocs and some faculty. I implore graduate students to think about the issues rather than the union, and to determine for themselves if they think a union is the appropriate means of addressing the problems they see. The attitude of ‘unionize first; think about what we want to negotiate later’ is reckless – just because we can form a union does not mean we should, or need to. Unionization should be a last resort after we have reasonably exhausted our current options and attempts to resolve our differences with the University, not the first step to addressing some vague, nebulous grievances. Please recognize the dubious benefits of unionizing, and understand the very real costs of doing so; from this cost-benefit standpoint, I do not see how unionization is worth it.


Kurt Ristroph is a graduate student in the Chemical and Biological Engineering Department. He can be reached at


Photo by Éamonn Ó Muirí under CC BY-SA 2.0 License

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