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Graduate Student Unionization Update

October 12, 2018

Dear Graduate Students,

On Thursday, October 11, 2018, the University received notice from the American Federation of Teachers on behalf of SUGSE/AFT of their intent to file a petition on or after October 21 to hold an election at Brown in which doctoral and master’s students who serve as teaching assistants, research assistants and/or proctors will decide whether or not to be represented by the union. This 10-day notice was made per the June 21, 2018 Union-University Conduct Rules Pre-election Agreement, which can be read here.

I write to provide clarity on what this notice means, the expected timeframe for a possible election, and to offer a reminder of the resources available to ensure that graduate students are able to consider their options guided by facts, and in an environment that is free from harassment or intimidation.

University Position and Resources
The University’s position on the role of graduate students has remained unchanged: Our principal relationship with graduate students is as students, which guides how we admit, recruit and train students. However, since the August 2016 National Labor Relations Board Columbia University ruling found 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, Brown has consistently affirmed that we would comply with the prevailing law and support discussions among graduate students as they explore whether or not unionization is right for them.

The University has stood by this commitment, and has developed a “Be Informed” website to provide informational resources for the community, including an evolving set of Frequently Asked Questions. Please take time to review this site.

We have also developed clear guidance for faculty about appropriate and acceptable conduct to ensure a climate that is conducive to thoughtful discussion and debate, as well as compliance with the law. In addition, the Pre-election Agreement includes specific guidelines for appropriate conduct to govern union organizing activities and conduct.

We have also provided a mechanism for students to report concerns. In the coming weeks, If there are occasions when a graduate student believes that a University or union representative has acted inappropriately and counter to expectations outlined in the Pre-election Agreement or Faculty Conduct Guidelines, they may register a report using this form. 

What follows is some additional important information that may be helpful moving forward.

What does a petition mean?
A petition is a request to hold an election asking eligible graduate students to vote on whether or not to for a collective bargaining unit and unionize. In accordance with the Pre-election Agreement, in order for the union to represent graduate teaching and research assistants at Brown, a majority of all the eligible students must vote in an election in favor of joining that union.

As a first step, the union needs support from at least 30 percent of currently enrolled members of the proposed bargaining unit in order to file a petition to proceed with the election. The union will need to demonstrate this support by providing valid authorization cards signed by at least 30 percent of currently enrolled students who are in the proposed bargaining unit.

It is important to note that signing an authorization card is a pre-petition step, and is distinct from ultimately voting for or against representation by the union in an election. Eligible voters are not required to have signed a card to vote in an election, and those who sign authorization cards are not obligated to vote in support of the union during the manual secret ballot election. Eligible voters are always free to vote however they want in the manual secret ballot election, regardless of whether a voter has previously signed an authorization card.

What is the difference between an “eligible voter” and a “bargaining unit member”?
According to the Pre-election Agreement, an “eligible voter” is defined as a Brown Ph.D. and/or Masters student enrolled in the Graduate School who is engaged in research or instructional services as a duly appointed Teaching Assistant, Research Assistant, and/or Proctor (collectively, “Graduate Assistants”) during the semester in which the election is held or who performed such services in one of the two semesters immediately preceding the semester in which the election takes place.

A “bargaining unit member” is defined as a Brown Ph.D. and/or Masters student currently enrolled in the Graduate School who is currently engaged in research or instructional services as a duly appointed “Graduate Assistant.”

This distinction between an “eligible voter” and a “bargaining unit member” is important because the term “eligible voter” encompasses a wider range of students, as it covers enrolled students from the prior two semesters as well as the current semester in which the election is taking place. It should be noted that these additional students are not part of the bargaining unit.

When will an election be held?
If it is determined that the union has the support of at least 30 percent of the bargaining unit, according to the Pre-election Agreement, the expectation is for an election to take place within 15 business days of receipt of the petition.

Who should vote in an election?
The decision on whether to allow a union to represent graduate students serving as teaching and research assistants is a consequential one. 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, the question of whether or not there will be union representation for non-voters will be decided by those who vote.

Will there be opportunities to learn more about these issues prior to an election?
In addition to the ongoing efforts of the Graduate School and others to share information on these issues, per the Pre-election Agreement, the University will host at least one open forum in the period between receiving a petition and an election taking place.

This is a critically important moment for graduate students and graduate education at Brown. All students, and especially those eligible to vote in an election, should become fully informed of the issues. We welcome a robust, constructive and informed discussion on these issues.


Richard M. Locke