[The following FAQ was written in response to many questions sent to union organizers. It was sent on 2 February 2017.]
Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Unionization
Compiled by the VU Union Organizers
What is the NLRB and why is this relevant now?
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is an independent federal agency that is charged to administer the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRB issues rules and guidance under the NLRA, it conducts union elections, it prosecutes violations of the NLRA (unfair labor practices), and it issues case decisions interpreting the NLRA.
Previously, graduate students at private institutions were not eligible to determine whether to form and join a union. These FAQ questions are relevant now because the recent NLRB ruling in Columbia University and Graduate Workers of Columbia, UAW stated that graduate students at private institutions are employees for purposes of the NLRA when performing services as teaching assistants, research assistants and instructors of record, and as employees, they may now decide whether they want to form and join a union.
A Union is Us, NOT a Third Party
As stated by Rebecca Gibson of Tufts University: “It is apparently a common trope to consider a union an external organization, a so-called “third party,” with the monolithic self-interested agenda that implies. The suggestion is the “third party” would intervene and interrupt the productive relationship between adjuncts and administrators of their university. Our experience at Tufts, where we won a first contract with significant improvements in pay and longer contracts as members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), has been strikingly different from that stereotype. Though we have benefited from the experience and energy of SEIU’s professional staff at every step, our issues, our preferences, our priorities, our language about our situation, our strategy and our ability to discover all of these, have determined the shape and direction of our efforts to form a union.
Far from feeling separated by some third party, we feel much more deeply and more significantly integrated into the university than before. We have gained stature by being together, a union, and we feel it both in our own commitment to the well-being of our students and our teachers, and in our ability to be heard and considered part of our university.”
How are the terms of graduate students’ working conditions currently determined?
Currently, decisions over our working conditions are decided by the Vanderbilt University administration. Vanderbilt has the power to change our conditions or decide whether or not to make improvements without being required to consult with the people who are directly affected by these changes: graduate student workers. By coming together, we have the power to negotiate for improvements in wages, hours, benefits, and tersm and conditions of employment.
What is VU’s official stance on unionization? What is the GSC’s stance?
Vanderbilt believes that the educational experience and the collaborative relationships that thrive between faculty and students in a dynamic academic environment like Vanderbilt’s will be adversely affected if a union were inserted into it. However, all students and employees at the University have the right to support or not to support a union without fear of retaliation.
The GSC is not taking a position for or against unionization. The role of the GSC is to provide objective information to students so that they can make informed decisions for themselves. GSC does feel that all students should have the right to freely express their opinion on unionization.
How does a union work? What have other student workers achieved?
Having a union empowers people to make positive changes in the workplace. Through the power of collective bargaining, graduate workers across the country have won a seat at the table and the right to negotiate with their college and university administrations. Decisions about what to prioritize in collective bargaining are determined democratically and vary between institutions. Common themes include raising minimum stipends, expanding healthcare coverage and family benefits, and defining workload protections.
For example, graduate student workers at NYU recently negotiated a new contract in which they won significant pay increases, free basic dental insurance, enhanced protections against harassment and discrimination, and new funds for childcare and family healthcare. Graduate student workers in the University of California system recently ratified a contract including pay increases, expansion of paid parental leave, access to lactation stations and gender-neutral bathrooms, and equal rights, opportunities and protections for undocumented graduate students.
What is the unionizing process like?
The process is dictated by NLRB rules: once 30% of graduate students have committed to signing “yes” on union cards, graduate students can file to vote. The NLRB reviews the vote and emails ballots to graduate students. Students vote—anonymously—“yes” or “no” and mail the ballots back. If a majority of voters have voted “yes”, then we become legally affiliated with SEIU and begin contract negotiations with the administration.
Once we have a union, graduate students will formulate its Collective Bargaining Committee. Because needs across disciplines are so diverse, we might have representatives from each department as members of the Committee, and the contract itself can include department-specific proposals-- this way, no students would be made worse off through the contract. Once the graduate students have all agreed to a contract, the Committee and its negotiator (affiliated with SEIU) meet with the administration’s bargaining team (often lawyers with deans or a provost present) to discuss the proposals in good faith. Changes are made as necessary until both parties are satisfied, and once the contract is agreed to and ratified by a vote of all graduate students, the contract goes into effect. It is only then that union members begin dues of paying 1.35% of the new stipend levels agreed to in the contract.
Tennessee is a Right to Vote state; what does that mean?
As a right-to-work state, employees in a bargaining unit represented by a union do not have to join the union or pay any union dues to retain their status at the University. In other words, if a union forms you do not have to join the union. Employees within a bargaining unit that do not join the union are still covered by the terms and conditions of the union contract. However, only students who are dues-paying members of a union are allowed to vote on a union contract or vote to strike.
Would all members of the bargaining unit be represented by the union, even if they are not a union member?
Yes, whether or not a student is a member of the union, all students in the bargaining unit are covered by the terms and conditions of the union contract. However, those students who choose not to join the union and not to pay union dues could not vote on union business. In other words, if you do not join the union you will still receive the benefits outlined in the union contract because you are still a graduate student at Vanderbilt. If you do not join the union you will not have the opportunity to vote on what those benefits should be.
Would the international status of students affect union eligibility?
No. All students in the bargaining unit regardless of their international status will be represented by the union and covered by the terms and conditions of the union contract.
If Vanderbilt were to hire a University Ombudsmen, would graduate students be able to utilize them?
Probably not. The types of things that an ombudsman would address would be addressed through a union grievance process.