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Union Basics For Students

We encourage all graduate students to learn as much as they can about this issue. We've created these resources to help you gather the facts and stay informed. You may download these resources for your reference:

The recent decision on graduate students by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has prompted questions and conversation across campus. As you educate yourself on the decision and its related impact, it is important that you thoughtfully review the organizations that may represent your interests and speak on your behalf.

As you learn more, remember that you reserve the right to conclude that a union is not in fact the right decision for you, for your fellow students, or for the University.

Consider the following questions in researching these organizations:

  1. What is the mission of the union, and does it align with your interests?
  2. How is the union funded, and what percentage of dues collected are diverted to union administration, salaries, and other benefits for union leaders, versus serving the interests of its paying members?
  3. Has the union been successful in representing the collective interests of graduate students at private research institutions in the past?
  4. Are you confident that the union will be able to represent the unique needs of Northwestern graduate students based on its historical record?
  5. Can the union guarantee a more positive outcome for you and your fellow students than exists today within the current structure?

Service Employees International Union (SEIU)

Individual SEIU members are organized into more than 150 local affiliates, known as “Locals,” each with unique constitutions, bylaws, officers, and governing bodies to which their members are bound.

SEIU Local 73 represents workers primarily in public service and publicly funded positions in municipalities, social service agencies, and school districts. It is only in recent years that the SEIU has sought to represent faculty and academic appointees at private institutions.

Helpful Links

American Federation of Teachers (AFT)

The American Federation of Teachers is an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, and has a broad membership base including those in education, government, and healthcare. Individual AFT members are organized into approximately 40 local affiliates, each with its own constitution, bylaws, officers, and governing bodies to which their members are bound.

The AFT is governed by its elected officers and by delegates to the union’s biennial convention.

Helpful Links

1. The Petition Phase

Prior to an election, union representatives typically communicate and meet with graduate students to determine their interest in representation, in order to secure enough support to file a petition for election to the NLRB.

Based on student feedback and interest, the union will attempt to obtain signed authorization cards from at least 30 percent of eligible graduate students in the bargaining unit, as that unit is defined by the union. Note the following:

  • Eligible graduate students include only those serving as teaching or research assistants.
  • It is entirely up to the student to choose whether or not to sign the card, and a signature does not obligate them to vote for a union in the event of an election.

Should the union obtain the necessary 30 percent, it will proceed with submitting both the signed authorization cards and formal petition to the NLRB. The petition is then presented to Northwestern University by the NLRB, kicking off the post-petition campaign phase.

2. Post-Petition Campaign

Shortly after receiving the petition, Northwestern must share election information by posting flyers around campus. Both Northwestern and the union will send out information about unionization during the campaign. This phase of the process is largely meant to build awareness around the upcoming election, and drive higher voter turnout and concludes with the election.

3. The Election

The NLRB will administer the election by secret ballot, either in-person or via mail. Voting is critical, given that a simple majority of only those who cast a vote will determine the outcome of the election.

Consider the following before you vote:

  • Prior to voting, gather as many details as possible about what union representation means, about your potential union partner, and if you feel confident that a union can effectively represent your unique interests.
  • If you don’t feel prepared to decide whether union representation is for you, you can vote “no” in an election and take time to learn more and consider your options in the future.
  • Remember that you can still choose to vote against union representation in the election even if you signed an authorization card during the petition phase.
  • Should you choose to vote for the union, and the union is indeed elected and certified, this union will become your exclusive representative on wages, benefits, and other working conditions, and cannot be voted out for at least one year. After a year, a union can only be removed through a lengthy decertification process that requires another election.
  • It is critical that you vote in the election to make your voice heard, either for or against the union.
  • Please know that your vote is confidential, known only to you, and never shared with the University, the union representative, or the NLRB.

Please visit the Frequently Asked Questions for more information on unions and the election process.

The Graduate School (TGS) has a strong history of working closely with and advocating for the graduate student population. From enhancing benefits to creating new opportunities to engage with one another, TGS recognizes the value of our graduate students to our University community, and is committed to ensuring they have a positive experience at Northwestern.

Recently, it was announced that PhD students in The Graduate School will receive guaranteed funding for five years and five summers of study, or 20 quarters. See the spring quarter letter from the dean for more information.

Included below are several other targeted actions that have been implemented to help better meet the needs of our graduate students. 


  • In 2006, the Graduate Leadership Council (since renamed the “Graduate Leadership and Advocacy Council,” or GLAC) requested transit passes to then-Dean of TGS, Andrew Wachtel, which eventually launched the Activity Fee program. Now, students enrolled full-time are issued U-Passes and provided access to TGS Night Out, Community Building Grants, and may participate in graduate student associations.
  • In 2012, TGS Dean McBride reinstituted the student dental plan after learning it was discontinued without proper consultation.
  • In 2016, following direct feedback from GLAC, Northwestern changed the provider and structure of its student dental insurance plans to better meet the needs of the TGS population. In addition, Northwestern introduced a vision insurance plan for TGS students and their families for the first time.
  • Northwestern remains committed to providing TGS students with platinum level health insurance, with lower out-of-pocket costs than would be found in employer or marketplace plans. Work is underway on renewing the plan for 2017-2018 academic year, and feedback from students is welcome.

Financial Support

In 2015, The Graduate School led efforts to increase the base stipend rates for students, following conversations with students and faculty confirming that the stipend level was low and not competitive with national averages at private institutions. These collaborative efforts resulted in a raise to the base stipend rate for all PhD students as of September 1, 2015.

Work-Life Balance

In 2015, conversations with graduate students raised challenges that students with children faced in balancing academic pursuits and accomplishments with family obligations. Recommendations from a task force assembled to tackle these issues were quickly implemented, including paid parental leave for eligible PhD and MFA students and a graduate student-centered resource in the Office of Work/Life & Family Resources.

Other Key Support Initiatives

TGS hosts “Drinks with the Dean” several times each academic year, where students have an opportunity to share personal successes and challenges along their academic journey, and provide TGS with valuable feedback on the graduate student experience. These conversations have enabled TGS to respond on an individual basis to address issues such as conflicts with advisors and unclear policies, as well as to strengthen services such as professional development offerings.