March 1, 2023

University Grad Students Take Steps To Form Union; Administration is Silent

By Donald Gilpin

On February 24, just nine days after a rally calling for fair wages, more affordable housing from the University, and the right to form a union, the Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU) announced that a majority of Princeton University’s more than 3,000 graduate students had signed union cards.

The University’s graduate student workers can now file for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board since more than 30 percent of graduate students have signed a union card, but PGSU leaders are going for larger percentages before taking the next steps.

“Right now we’re at a majority,” said union representative Aditi Rao, a graduate student in classics. “We’d love to be at a super majority, which is to say we would love to have 67 percent of the graduate body sign their union card. At that point it would be very clear to us and to the University that the grounds are clear for a win.”

The next step in the process towards unionization is likely to be petitioning the University for voluntary recognition. “It’s rare that an employer will voluntarily recognize its workers and allow them to form a union,” said Tim Alberdingk, a University graduate student in computer science and member of the PGSU communications committee. “So you go to the National Labor Relations Board to organize a date for an election. If 50 percent plus one vote yes, you have a legally recognized union and you can create a bargaining committee to bargain with your employer. We would then have a direct say over conditions and any kind of changes we want to see at Princeton we could propose in a contract.”

The University has declined to make any public comment on this campaign and the prospect of a graduate student union. When asked for a comment this week, University Director of Media Relations Michael Hotchkiss said the University had nothing to add at this time.

PGSU leaders noted that University President Christopher Eisgruber is planning an event later this month when he will be speaking to graduate students, and he might use that opportunity to define the University’s position on this issue.

“It’s clear what’s going to happen if the vote comes to the table,” said Rao. “And it’s clear what the graduate workers here at Princeton want. I hope the University can see that it’s in all of our favors to just accept the reality as it stands and negotiate and bargain with us in good faith.”

Rao and Alberdingk both pointed out issues facing graduate student workers and cases where the University has failed to provide for them. Among the priorities mentioned were affordable housing near campus, cost of living pay increases, improved benefits for international students, and a seat at the table in negotiating working conditions. They emphasized the financial strains of recent inflation and of living in the town of Princeton. 

In January 2022 the University announced an increase of about 25 percent in graduate fellowship and stipend rates to about $40,000, but both Rao and Alberdingk said that increase was not sufficient to meet the needs of many.

“The increased stipends they provide have done little to mitigate the massive cost of living increases in the past year,” said Rao. “I’m glad to be part of an historic movement of graduate workers across the country who are saying that for far too long graduate students have been the backbone of how universities function in the U.S., and it’s time that the University recognizes that labor.”

Princeton University offers some subsidized graduate student housing, Albergingk said, but that housing is limited and many students have to go looking for housing in the area and end up paying more than 40 percent of their salaries. 

“The increase last year helped keep people above water, at least temporarily, but we’re seeing that improvement evaporate with the increased cost of groceries, gas, and everything that people need on an everyday basis,” he said.

Alberdingk also emphasized that the graduate students had no voice in making decisions that affected their living and working conditions. “We are totally dependent on the University to make decisions about which programs they want to extend and what they want to provide us in terms of support,” he said. “There are no guarantees year to year. You are dependent on a relatively small group of people. You are dependent on their approval, their sign-off on what you are doing, and their level of support for your academic progress.”

Rao added, “There are such discrepancies across the board. The University has not standardized any of its management protocols as they pertain to grievances and other big issues on the table.”

Unionization efforts by graduate students at other Ivy League institutions have met with some success in recent years. Yale University was the most recent to unionize in January, after a campaign that had lasted for decades with much opposition from the administration. Columbia, Brown, and Harvard graduate students have also formed unions.

At a February 21 meeting the Graduate Student Government voted to support the PGSU in its efforts to unionize, and Aberdingk promised that the efforts to enlist support would continue. “We are going to be doing more to build on that momentum and organize more activities,” he said. “Graduate workers deserve a voice in how we do our work. We deserve a say in how we do our jobs. By working together we can accomplish much more than we can on our own. That’s what has inspired me to be part of this effort.”

Rao pointed out that the graduate students’ efforts are a push for better conditions for undergraduates and the whole University as well. “When our conditions are better, their conditions are better,” she said. “I hope people realize that this is a win overall for the larger community, not just the graduate body. There are a lot of people who are relying on a better set of circumstances that comes at the other end of this decision.”