Collective Bargaining Basics

Graduate Education at Brown

The Unionization Process

Pre-election Agreement

Unionization’s Potential Impact

Additional Resources

Collective Bargaining Basics


What is the NLRB?

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is an independent federal agency created to enforce the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRB is authorized to protect the rights of employees to organize and to determine whether to have unions as their bargaining representatives. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., it has regional offices across the country, including one in Boston, Massachusetts.

On August 23, 2016, the NLRB ruled that graduate students at private colleges and universities who serve as teaching or research assistants are employees with the right to decide whether or not to unionize. This decision reversed the 2004 Brown University case, in which the NLRB found that graduate students at Brown cannot be considered employees subject to collective bargaining. Return to list of FAQs

What is a union?

A union is an organization that serves as an agent representing a specific group of workers in matters related to their employment. This group is called a bargaining unit. Return to list of FAQs

How do unions obtain the right to represent employees?

Union representation is determined by a secret-ballot election in which those eligible to be in the bargaining unit are invited to vote “yes” or “no” on the question of union representation. If a majority of those who vote choose union representation, all eligible voters (whether or not they cast a vote in the election) — and those who follow them into union-represented positions in the future — would be exclusively represented by the union in their dealings with the University concerning pay, benefits and other “terms and conditions of employment.” Return to list of FAQs

What is meant by the term collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is the formal process of negotiation between an employer and a group of employees that establishes the terms and conditions of their employment. The terms negotiated include pay, benefits, work hours, time off and more. The process results in a collective bargaining agreement, which legally binds both the employer and the employees to the terms agreed upon.

Often, employee groups that engage in collective bargaining choose to be represented by a union, an organization that serves as an agent representing a specific group of employees and collectively bargains with the employer on their behalf. In the United States, a federal agency called the National Labor Relations Board oversees the process for employees seeking to form or join a union. Return to list of FAQs

Graduate Education at Brown


What is the role of graduate education at Brown?

Graduate education has been central to Brown’s mission for well over a century. Today, graduate students at Brown compose approximately one-quarter of the student population and contribute in significant and enduring ways to teaching, research and the advancement of knowledge across the disciplines.

This commitment to graduate education is reflected in the University's strategic plan for advancing academic excellence over the next decade, Building on Distinction. Strengthening graduate education is also central to the University’s Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, which graduate students were instrumental in developing. Supporting graduate education is a priority in the associated comprehensive fundraising campaign, BrownTogether.

View a summary of recent investments and developments to strengthen graduate education. Return to list of FAQs

How are graduate students currently represented at Brown?

Brown University has a strong and participatory system of shared governance and decision making that engages students, faculty and staff. The Graduate Student Council is the student government organization representing the more than 2,200 graduate students at Brown. Graduate students are represented on the Graduate Council, the body overseeing policies for graduate education at Brown; on the University Resources Committee, which develops the University’s budget, including that of the Graduate School; on the Diversity and Inclusion Oversight Board; and the Brown University Community Council. Graduate students also are regularly represented on a range of ad hoc working groups and task forces, and on search committees for deans and other offices affecting graduate students. The GSC provides service by nominating students to these bodies and committees. In addition, the schools within the University have their own governance structures to engage students. Return to list of FAQs

How are decisions made currently at Brown with respect to things like graduate student stipends, assistantships and benefits?

Graduate students are represented by the Graduate Student Council and are engaged in decision-making through a system of shared governance (see above) that has led to continuous improvements to stipends, benefits and to overall community enhancements, including most recently providing doctoral students with guaranteed dental care, enhanced parental relief and 12-month funding.

For example, graduate students participate on the Graduate Council, University Resources Committee, and on the Campus Life Committee of the University’s main governing body, the Corporation of Brown University. Decisions regarding policies, resources and investments are made through these entities to ensure the University is able to attract the most promising graduate students and support their learning, growth and success. In addition, student feedback from the annual climate survey informs discussions with each graduate program about ways to address issues affecting student success. Return to list of FAQs

What is the University’s position on unionization for graduate students?

Every institution is different and offers a distinct context for considering the role of collective bargaining and unionization. Prior to this decision, the University urged the NLRB to consider Brown graduate students as students, first and foremost, reflecting our strong belief that teaching and research are integral to a graduate education – preparing students for leading positions in academia, industry and the public sector. With the recent NLRB decision, Brown’s president, provost and Graduate School dean issued a statement emphasizing that the University will comply with the NLRB's recent decision and support discussions among graduate students as they explore whether or not unionization is right for them. The University is committed to promoting an environment that supports open and informed discussion, free of intimidation by any party. Return to list of FAQs

How would Brown respond to efforts to unionize?

Brown is already working to ensure a robust and informed discussion about the election process and the impact that unionization of students might have on our campus. We believe that a full and informed discussion of this issue, guided by facts, is important both to graduate students and to faculty. Return to list of FAQs

The Unionization Process


What steps would need to take place to unionize?

In order for a union to represent a bargaining unit — a specific group of employees who collectively choose to unionize — a majority of all the members of that bargaining unit must vote in an election in favor of joining that union. As a first step, a union needs support from at least 30 percent of the members of that bargaining unit before they can file a petition with the NLRB to proceed with that election. Organizers supporting unionization typically conduct “card drives” to demonstrate support for the petition. In a card drive, members of the unit can choose to sign authorization cards (or forms) to signal their support for union representation. Signing an authorization card is a pre-petition step and is distinct from ultimately voting for or against representation in an NLRB election.

Should a bargaining unit’s members demonstrate enough support, organizers will file an election petition with the NLRB, which would in turn prompt an election in which all bargaining unit members would be eligible to vote on whether or not to be represented by the union. The NLRB will seek an election agreement between the University and the union outlining key details of the election. These details include determining the date, time and place for the election, as well as a method for determining who is eligible to vote, among other details.

Ultimately, the election to certify a union as the bargaining representative for a bargaining unit is decided by a majority of votes cast by all the eligible members of the bargaining unit. Return to list of FAQs

What are authorization cards and how are they used in the unionization process?

Authorization cards are written declarations signed by members of a potential bargaining unit stating that they want a particular union to be their exclusive representative for the purposes of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment with their employer. Typically, unions collect authorization cards as part of an organizing drive — that is, an attempt to show that there is a substantial interest in unionizing and a desire to have the union serve as the exclusive bargaining agent. Return to list of FAQs

If a student signs an authorization card, does that mean that individual must vote in favor of the union during the election?

No. Those who sign authorization cards are not obligated to vote in support of the union during the secret ballot election. Eligible voters are always free to vote however they want in the secret ballot election, regardless of whether a voter has previously signed an authorization card. Return to list of FAQs

Which labor union would likely represent eligible graduate student assistants at Brown if the majority of those voting supported unionization?

According to a report by the Brown Daily Herald, in a March 2017 affiliation vote, graduate student voters selected the American Federation of Teachers as their union affiliate, should unionization occur. Return to list of FAQs

When would an election to determine unionization take place and what is the process?

A labor union that demonstrates adequate support would need to file a petition with the regional NLRB office to obtain authority to represent the bargaining unit and to conduct a secret ballot election. That election, which would be supervised by representatives of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), would likely be held within a few weeks of filing the petition and would be held at an easily accessible campus location. Return to list of FAQs

Who would be eligible to participate in an election?

Eligibility to vote (if an election were to occur) would be determined by the union’s definition of the bargaining unit of students it seeks to represent, provided that the University agrees to that definition. If the union and the University were unable to agree on who is eligible to vote, the issue would be decided by the NLRB after each side presents its position. Return to list of FAQs

Who should vote in an election?

Every eligible person should vote, because the election outcome is determined by the majority of those who vote, not a majority of those eligible to vote. Thus, union representation for non-voters will be decided by those who vote. Eligible voters are people who are part of the defined voting unit at the time of the election. Return to list of FAQs

Would all graduate students at Brown be considered part of a union?

The answer to this question depends on how the union defines the students it wants to represent and include in the bargaining unit. The union could seek to represent all graduate students who perform teaching or research. Alternatively, the union could petition for a unit consisting of a smaller set of graduate students. Return to list of FAQs

If a graduate student did not want to be represented by a union, could the student opt out?

If a majority of eligible voters votes in support of unionization, then all eligible students would be considered to be in the union and covered by any and all terms of employment negotiated between the union and the University. No graduate student would be forced to join the union, but all students would be required to abide by the terms of any contract regardless of whether they voted for the union or not. Return to list of FAQs

Would students have access to a draft of a proposed contract or set of items to be negotiated prior to a vote on unionization?

Under current law, a secret ballot election of eligible graduate students would be required to determine whether or not graduate student assistants at Brown want to be represented by a labor union. The majority of those voting would determine the outcome of the election. Any negotiations to develop a collective bargaining agreement would take place after the election. The manner in which a union creates its proposals is governed by the union’s own bylaws. While a union can promise improvements to wages or benefits, these are issues that can only be decided in collective bargaining between the union and the University after an election, and there are no certainties until a contact is negotiated and agreed to by all parties. Return to list of FAQs

Once a vote has taken place, either in favor or against unionization, can another election be held at a later date to revisit the issue?

If the majority of the eligible graduate students who vote decide to be represented by a specific labor union, that union remains the bargaining representative unless and until steps are taken to remove or decertify the union. This is a complex and potentially lengthy process, which cannot be initiated until one year after an election. If the original vote is against unionization, a labor union could petition for another election one year after the first election. Return to list of FAQs

Would the international status of students affect union eligibility?

International student status does not affect eligibility to be part of a bargaining unit. Return to list of FAQs

Pre-election Agreement

On June 21, 2018, Brown University and the campus student organization Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees (SUGSE) signed a pre-election agreement that outlines guiding principles, voter eligibility guidelines and operating procedures should the University receive a petition to hold an election asking eligible graduate students whether or not they choose to unionize.


What is the purpose of a pre-election agreement?

The primary purpose of the agreement is to have a structured, organized, transparent and relatively predictable process should graduate students choose to hold an election at Brown to decide whether or not to unionize. Return to list of FAQs

Is a pre-election agreement needed to have an election regarding graduate student unionization?

No, a pre-election agreement is not necessary for the union to petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold an election, or for an election to take place. Return to list of FAQs

Does the University’s entering this pre-election agreement mean that it favors unionization?

No. The University’s principal relationship with graduate students is as students. Since the August 2016 NLRB decision that found graduate student teaching and research assistant at private universities are also employees with the right to unionize, the University has been consistent in noting that Brown would comply with the ruling and support the rights of graduate students to decide for themselves whether unionization was in their best interests.

The pre-election agreement seeks to ensure an organized and transparent process should graduate students choose to hold an election at Brown to decide whether or not to unionize. Return to list of FAQs

What are the primary elements of the agreement?

The June 21, 2018, pre-election agreement signed by representatives of Brown University and SUGSE creates formal election procedures, voter eligibility guidelines and a dispute resolution mechanism that would govern an election, should such an election take place at Brown. Return to list of FAQs

Does a pre-election agreement guarantee that an election will take place?

No, a pre-election agreement does not guarantee that an election will take place. There are a number of additional steps required to hold an election. For example, the union needs support from at least 30 percent of the members of the proposed bargaining unit before it can file a petition to proceed with an election. Return to list of FAQs

How would an election be conducted under the pre-election agreement?

The agreement calls for a secret-ballot election to be conducted by the American Arbitration Association (AAA), in accordance with the National Labor Relations Act. The agreement states that an election would be conducted by manual ballot consistent with NLRB rules and regulations. Return to list of FAQs

According to the pre-election agreement, who is eligible to vote should an election take place?

The agreement defines a potential bargaining unit as doctoral and master’s students who serve as teaching assistants, research assistants and/or in proctorships during the semester in which an election is held, or who served in these roles in one of the two semesters immediately preceding the semester in which the election takes place. Return to list of FAQs

What kind of information will the University need to provide to a Union regarding eligible voters?

Upon the request of the union, the University will provide a voter eligibility list that includes graduate students who meet the agreed-upon criteria noted above. Information will include name, department, position title, degree program, start date, field of study, and personal mailing addresses, phone numbers and email addresses. In accordance with the Family Educational Rights and Protection Act (FERPA), the University would notify all graduate students on the voter list and offer the option of excluding personally identifiable information from the materials provided to the union. Return to list of FAQs

How many eligible voters would it take to form a union?

The agreement states that for unionization to take place at Brown, a majority (50 percent + 1) of the graduate assistants voting in an election would be required to vote in favor of a union. Return to list of FAQs

What is the dispute mechanism that the pre-election agreement establishes?

Disputes regarding the eligibility of any individual voting in an election and/or the results of an election would be resolved by an arbitrator. Return to list of FAQs

What is the role of the Union-Management Committee called for in the agreement?

The agreement calls for the creation of a Union-Management Committee consisting of three University representatives and three SUGSE representatives to discuss issues related to the agreement and any other matters of mutual interest. Return to list of FAQs

How long is the agreement in effect?

The agreement will remain in effect until April 15, 2019. If the NLRB reverses the Columbia decision prior to its expiration, the agreement would immediately terminate. Return to list of FAQs

What happens if the NLRB or another court overrules the Columbia University decision and finds that graduate students are not employees eligible for unionization?

The agreement states that if the NLRB changes its ruling on this matter, reversing the Columbia decision, the agreement would terminate immediately. Return to list of FAQs

What if an election is held and collective bargaining ensues, and the NLRB or another court overrules the Columbia University decision and finds graduate students are not employees eligible for unionization?

The agreement states that any collectively bargained agreement that is reached prior to a Columbia reversal would be honored for the duration of the agreement. At the conclusion of any such agreement, the University would comply with whatever NLRB ruling is in effect at that particular time. Return to list of FAQs

Unionization’s Potential Impact


What would be the effect of union representation on graduate student stipends and benefits?

Brown is not yet able to determine the effect of possible union representation on current student benefits. Through Brown University’s annual budgeting process and the engaged governance and decision making, stipends for doctoral students have increased 56.3 percent since 2004-05, from $16,000 to $25,010 in 2017-18 (with annual gain ranges from 2.5 percent to 6.25 percent). Doctoral students receive health and dental insurance and expanded parental relief, among other benefits, bringing the total guaranteed annual support to $32,532. Since stipends are part of the University’s financial support package, it is unclear whether they would be subject to bargaining. Return to list of FAQs

Would there be any impact of unionization on the number of hours that graduate student assistants covered by a contract allocate to teaching or research?

According to the Graduate School’s policy, in any given semester at Brown, a graduate student’s stipend is attached to a particular activity — either a teaching assistantship, research assistantship or proctorship — as a part of the candidate’s scholarly training. The Graduate School has a long-standing policy that a student should spend no more than 20 hours per week on these activities, a policy designed to protect a student’s time available for scholarly activities such as coursework, reading, research and writing that are also a part of graduate training. It is unlikely that the educational policy regarding allocation of student time would be subject to collective bargaining. Return to list of FAQs

Would there be any effect on the relationship between faculty and graduate students who are represented by the union?

It is impossible to speculate on the impact of unionization on these relationships, particularly transforming what traditionally has been a personalized academic relationship to a business relationship that covers other students as well. This would depend upon the items negotiated in a contract and any final collective bargaining agreement. Return to list of FAQs

What is the dues structure for union representation?

It is unclear what dues might be for union representation in the event of graduate student unionization at Brown. According to the New York University graduate union website, dues are 2 percent of total compensation (which includes wages from union work and NYU funding package) during the semesters in which a graduate assistant is employed in a union position, and dues are deducted from every paycheck. At the current level of total annual support at Brown (excluding tuition), which is $32,532.00, 2% would be $650.00. In addition to the dues at NYU, there is an initiation fee of approximately $50. Return to list of FAQs

Will union dues be required of all students represented through collective bargaining?

Federal labor law allows unions to propose in collective bargaining that members of the bargaining unit either become dues-paying union members or pay the union a similar fee, referred to as an agency or representation fee. Depending on the contract in force, failure to pay dues could result in dismissal from a teaching or research appointment. This is a negotiable item but most unions insist on such a clause in the collective bargaining agreement to ensure payment of dues. For example, the NYU contract with the labor union representing graduate students mandates that all union members pay either the union dues or an agency fee that is equivalent to the union dues. Return to list of FAQs

Would union representation affect the current governance structure? Would graduate students represented by a union be eligible to serve on University committees?

It is impossible to speculate on the impact of unionization on the existing governance system. When a union is elected to represent a group of employees, the union has the exclusive right to bargain on behalf of all employees in the bargaining unit over wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment. That means that the employer is prohibited from entering into individual agreements with employees about working conditions, or otherwise making changes without bargaining with the union. Although the existence of a union would not necessarily supplant the existence of the graduate student governance structure, the structure’s capacity to represent the interests of graduate students may be affected. Return to list of FAQs

Would union representation affect the process for filing grievances?

We cannot predict the impact of unionization on the grievance process. It is University policy that each and every graduate student is entitled to a fair and prompt hearing of grievances, and the grievance process for graduate students is outlined in the Faculty Rules and Regulations. In the case of NYU, Article XX of its Collective Bargaining Agreement outlines grievance and arbitration procedures for members of the bargaining unit with respect to violation of the terms of the agreement. Return to list of FAQs

Students in different schools and departments at Brown may have very different experiences and needs. Could exceptions be added to the negotiated contract that would recognize and accommodate individual student needs?

As a collective bargaining unit, students are considered as a group, not as individuals. Special provisions for different categories of members would need to be provided for in the labor contract or agreed to by the union through the collective bargaining process. Once a tentative agreement is reached, all union members have the opportunity to vote on the contract. If at least 50 percent of those who vote approve it, the contract is binding on all. Return to list of FAQs

What has been the experience at other institutions with respect to graduate student unions?

There is limited information regarding the effects of graduate student unionization at private universities such as Brown. While there is a history of public university graduate student assistants being represented by unions (as of 2014, there were 31 recognized graduate employee unions and 18 unrecognized unions in the U.S.) at present, New York University is the only private university in the country to have a voluntary union for doctoral students. That union represents graduate teaching assistants and research assistants other than those in the hard sciences, and their service as graduate assistants is not directly related to any educational requirements.

Since the August 2016 NLRB decision, there have been petitions filed by unions and elections held at a number of private universities. In some cases, eligible students have voted to be represented by a union, while in others, eligible students voted against representation. Some cases remain under review by the courts. Return to list of FAQs

Additional Resources


How can graduate students learn more about their rights?

Brown’s Doctoral student rights and responsibilities are spelled out in the Graduate School Handbook, and the Graduate School requires programs to clearly communicate program requirements, milestones and progress. Return to list of FAQs

How can I learn more about perspectives on unionization?

There are many points of view on the subject of unionization. We encourage students to be informed, to engage in dialogue and discussion, and to visit the Resources page of this website, which includes a range of materials related to graduate student unionization. Return to list of FAQs