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Union Basics For Faculty

The recent decision on unionization of graduate students by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has generated questions across our community. In the absence of a clear precedent with regard to unionization by graduate students at private universities, it is a challenge to provide clear-cut answers to what a unionized environment would entail here at Northwestern. That said, we have been making every effort to provide our students and broader community with as much information as possible so that they can understand the potential implications.

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As faculty members, it is important that you educate yourself and ensure graduate students feel that they can express their opinions without scrutiny or repercussion. This guide offers several suggestions to help you navigate your interactions and conversations with our graduate students as we continue to engage around this complicated and nuanced issue.

Pre-petition environment

Below are suggested actions you can take to foster a positive, open, and informative environment as we move ahead:

  • Be accessible. Listen to students’ concerns and be responsive to the extent possible.
  • Continue routine engagement with students. The prospect of a union does not change your existing engagement with students across research, teaching, and mentoring activities.
  • Reinforce that academic success is paramount. Emphasize your commitment to our students’ academic excellence and success.
  • Remind students of their existing benefits. Provide students with data highlighting existing benefits, such as stipends, health benefits, and other services, demonstrating the University’s commitment to their success.  
  • Help students understand what union membership may mean for them. Union membership could result in a variety of changes, including a requirement to pay dues, and introducing a third party into the existing relationships between students, their faculty advisors, and the University.
  • Help students learn more about the unions. Inform students about the union’s local, regional, and national track record representing graduate students, if you are aware of it, and reinforce that unions may not follow through on initial promises once elected. Northwestern has learned that the local branches of two prominent unions—SEIU and the American Federation of Teachers—have been on campus.
Educate students on the process
  • Collective bargaining – Collective bargaining is the process by which a union and the University negotiate over the terms and conditions of employment for all members in the bargaining unit; however this process does not dictate what must go into a contract. If elected, a union has the exclusive authority to bargain on behalf of students, with no guarantee of improvements to existing conditions of employment.
  • Union election – A union must obtain authorization cards from at least 30 percent of employees in a given bargaining unit. Students are at liberty to decide whether or not to sign the card, and their signature does not require them to vote in favor of the union should there ultimately be an election. The NLRB would hold the election by secret ballot, and the outcome would be decided by a majority vote of those voting. Note that students who do not teach or serve as research assistants, including first year students on fellowship, may not be considered eligible members of a graduate student union.

Post-petition environment

Should Northwestern graduate students decide to file a petition to form a union, there are important considerations for faculty in terms of how to appropriately engage with students in order to ensure all students are treated equally, and that they feel at ease in expressing opinions and making decisions. During this critical phase in the process, faculty are advised to remember the following helpful rule during this critical phase of the process: “No TIPS.” TIPS refers to the following:  “No Threats, No Interrogation, No Promises, and No Surveillance.”

T = Threats

Don’t threaten adverse consequences, make threatening statements, or use intimidating language that might influence a student’s decision on whether to sign an authorization card or vote in favor of the union. Don’t make general threats of adverse consequences if the union wins an election. Implied threats are also prohibited. For example, suggesting that existing stipends will be reduced if the union is elected could be viewed as a threat. Don’t treat known union supporters less favorably than other students.

I = Interrogation

Don’t interrogate students about union activity. Don’t ask students what they think about the union, how they intend to vote, whether they have signed an authorization card, the names of other students who support the union and/or have signed a card, the identity of leaders of the union campaign, or other questions about the union’s internal affairs, meetings, etc. If a student volunteers such information, you are permitted to listen, but don’t ask other questions to obtain additional information.

P = Promises

Don’t promise favorable consequences if a student votes against the union. Don’t promise individual students reward or future benefit if they vote against the union. Likewise, don’t make general promises of favorable consequences if a majority votes against the union. Implied promises are also prohibited. For example, don’t suggest to students that whatever their issues are, they will be addressed by the administration if the union is defeated.

S = Surveillance

Don’t spy or eavesdrop on union meetings, or act as though you are trying to find out if students are participating in union activities.

Questions? Concerns? Contact TGS-Inquiries.