By Erin Delmore
“Graduate students, it’s sort of a misnomer in the sense that we don’t just take classes and then go home and do homework. We do actively produce novel research and that requires a lot of work,” said Akshay Mehra, vice president of Princeton’s GSG.
Princeton University’s graduate students are taking first steps toward forming a union following the lead of other schools in recent months. While there are unions on public campuses, private colleges are just catching up thanks to an August decision by the National Labor Relations Board to classify private colleges’ graduate teaching and research assistants as workers.
“Graduate students that actually work at their universities are spending basically 24 hours a day between their studies and the work they do so that they can support their studies, so they can support their families and so that they can actually spend the time in their studies,” said ATF President Randi Weingarten.
The National Labor Relations Board reversed a 2004 decision sparking what some call a movement nationwide.
“I think the NLRB decision certainly ignited a flame that’s been burning for a long time and we expect to see it move across the country very quickly,” said Vice President of the Graduate Student Advisory Committee at Columbia University Ian Bradley-Perrin.
That decision gives graduate students who do form a union the right to collectively bargain their contracts, including wages, work hours, stipends for housing and child care, program lengths and funding, health insurance benefits and the process for handling grievances like pay discrepancies and issues with superiors.
The Princeton Graduate Student Union, a group separate from the student government, voted to affiliate with the American Federation of Teachers. It’s a preliminary step toward unionization.
“Most students here are really confused about what’s going on, still. There’s this sense that still they don’t know what the vote last week was for. Some students are worried that we’re already unionized,” said Mehra.
“I feel like the whole movement’s moving too fast. We’re not giving graduate students enough time to think about the issues and decide whether unionization is right for us,” third year graduate student Joshua Wallace said.
Supporters say unionizing is necessary to give graduate students the representation they deserve. Others say Princeton is smaller and closer-knit than other schools that have formed unions and that graduate students here have been able to sort out issues with the administration themselves.
“This is a decision that ultimately comes down school by school by school. Harvard has a much larger graduate student body when you throw in medical school and law school and so the environment there is somewhat different. Princeton is a small town. The graduate student community here is I think more tight-knit than at other places. The fact that the administration is sort of centralized, in that it’s just a university and there really aren’t any professional schools, there are small ones, there aren’t are large professional schools, means the administration has a centralized response to graduate students’ concerns and I think that communication here is better than at other institutions. Now does that mean that the communication is good enough to stave off this momentum? I think that’s something that graduate students will end up deciding,” said GSG Academic Affairs Chair Daniel Vitek.
To form a union, 30 percent of graduate students have to back the effort. Princeton grad students say they hope the issue captures students’ attention and that the final vote is representative of the student body.