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Union Basics

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What is a union?

A union is an organization that, in exchange for dues paid by individuals it represents, serves as a representative for a group of employees, negotiating with the employer to establish terms and conditions of employment.

What is the NLRB?

The NLRB (also called the Board) is an agency of the United States government that enforces and oversees administration of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the federal labor law that covers most private employers. Among its principal functions, the Board:

  • Holds secret ballot elections to determine if employees wish to be represented by a union for purposes of negotiating and establishing the terms and conditions of employment with their employer and, if so, by which union;
  • Prevents and remedies unlawful acts (called unfair labor practices) committed by employers or unions.

The Board has published an overview of employer/union rights and obligations, accessible on the NLRB website.

What is a bargaining unit?

A bargaining unit is a group of similar employees sharing a “community of interest” and who are collectively represented by a union. When a union is seeking to form a bargaining unit, the union initially decides who it wants to include, but the ultimate composition of the unit must be approved by the NLRB.

Who is included in the graduate student union at Northwestern University?

As certified by the NLRB, the “bargaining unit” is defined as:

Graduate students enrolled in Northwestern University degree programs who are providing instructional and research services for the University, including graduate assistants, teaching assistants, research assistants and fellows.

The bargaining unit definition also explicitly excludes:

All other employees; graduate students who are not providing instructional or research services for the University; undergraduate students; graduate students not seeking Northwestern degrees, including visiting students; graduate student graders, tutors and proctors who are not otherwise providing instructional or research services for the University; assistant chairs in residential colleges; residential assistants; students enrolled in the Pritzker School of Law; M.D. seeking students in the Feinberg School of Medicine (including M.D./Ph.D. students in Feinberg who are in their M.D. phase of studies); students enrolled in the Medill School of Journalism; office clericals; managers; guards and supervisors as defined in the Act.

Consistent with the exclusions above, non-graduate students like postdoctoral fellows, research associates, and other employees hired directly by Human Resources and who are not enrolled in a degree program are not part of the bargaining unit.

Please note: Bargaining unit inclusions and exclusions are the product of negotiations between the University and the UE union, with input and guidance from the NLRB.

What steps have been taken to form a graduate student union?

A union seeking to represent a group of employees first needs to obtain “authorization cards” from at least 30% of people they want to represent. Authorization cards are signed, written or electronic declarations submitted by members of a potential bargaining unit stating that they want a particular union to represent them.

Typically, unions collect authorization cards as part of an organizing drive in advance of presenting them to the NLRB with a request (which is called a “petition”) for an election to determine if a majority of eligible voters wants to be represented by the union.

On Nov. 17, 2022, a labor union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) filed a petition with the NLRB seeking to represent Northwestern graduate students enrolled in degree programs who are “employed to provide instructional and research services” at the University. 

The University and UE worked together and with the NLRB to reach an agreement on the details for a secret-ballot election that took place Jan. 10 and Jan. 11, 2023 on the Evanston and Chicago campuses. Because the majority of eligible graduate students voted for union representation, UE was certified as the representative for the graduate student union. Accordingly, on June 5, 2023, the University and the union began negotiations on an initial collective bargaining agreement (see Collective Bargaining below).

If/when the union and University reach an overall “tentative agreement,” the students in the bargaining unit will vote on whether to ratify the agreement.

Does union membership cost money?

Yes. If you are represented by a union, you may be charged dues, initiation fees, fines and assessments, among other costs. Unions decide these costs without employer or NLRB input and usually seek to have dues and fees directly taken out of employees’ paychecks.

Are graduate students obligated to join the union?

While you may not be obligated to affirmatively join the union, when you are in the bargaining unit, you still will be represented by the union (even if you prefer not to be) and you may still have to pay fees to the union. Here’s why:

  1. If you are in a program or school that is in the “bargaining unit” (a bargaining unit is defined as a group of people collectively represented by a union), then you will be represented by the union when you are providing instructional or research services for the University.
  2. A person may decide not to join the union, but unions usually require “non-members” to pay a fee to the union called an “agency fee.” The agency fee is essentially a service charge to cover the union’s costs for administering the contract, and the agency fee is usually about the same as union dues, though sometimes it is less. 
  3. Unions will typically seek to include a “union security clause” in their contract. Union security clauses sometimes say that all employees must join the union or pay an agency fee as a condition of employment. We can’t predict whether the graduate student union contract will have a union security clause since the University and the Union will have to bargain over it, but most union contracts do have these clauses. 

Collective Bargaining

What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is a process by which a union and an employer negotiate over the terms and conditions of employment, such as pay and benefits for all members in the bargaining unit. A union has the exclusive authority to bargain on behalf of all bargaining unit members, collectively, for pay, terms of appointment, benefits and other “working conditions.” Wages, benefits and other working conditions do not change automatically after employees vote for union representation; rather, if these terms change at all, it is only if and when an overall agreement is reached between the employer and the union.

If you are included in the bargaining unit, you will be represented by the union. You may be required to pay dues or an agency fee and, when you are providing instructional or research services for the University, you will be subject to the terms in the union contract.

How does collective bargaining work?

Collective bargaining is typically conducted in a series of meetings at which representatives of the union and Northwestern exchange written proposals for a collective bargaining agreement (also called a “union contract” or a “labor contract”).

Negotiations between the University and union representatives began on June 5, 2023 and will continue until a collective bargaining agreement is finalized. During this time, federal labor law requires Northwestern and the union to engage in “good faith” negotiations over terms and conditions of employment. This means the parties must meet, confer, and consider each other’s proposals with a genuine desire to reach an agreement. However, the duty does not require compromise or agreement to any particular proposal and does not require the parties to reach an overall agreement.

What topics are typically negotiated in collective bargaining?

In a university setting, bargaining topics typically include pay, work hours, health insurance, teaching and research appointment terms, disciplinary procedures, etc. Because, historically, there have not been graduate student unions at private universities, the NLRB has little experience determining what the phrase “terms and conditions of employment” means for graduate students whose academic programs require teaching and research.

How will a union change my academic relationships?

We can’t say for sure what will change and what will stay the same, but it is reasonable to expect that the presence of the union could make for a more regulated environment, in which traditionally informal academic relationships are instead governed by rules and requirements in the union contract.

Do all members of the bargaining unit play a role in negotiating a collective bargaining agreement?

No. Usually, collective bargaining is conducted by paid union representatives and a small subset of bargaining unit members selected by the union to assist the union’s representatives.

How can I ensure that my concerns are addressed in the collective bargaining agreement?

This might or might not be easy to do. While a union may solicit individual concerns, it cannot guarantee that any one person’s concerns will be addressed in the collective bargaining agreement.

How often do the parties engage in collective bargaining?

When finalizing an initial labor contract, the union and the employer will reach agreement as to the term of the contract (i.e., when the agreement will expire). Initial contract terms typically run from 2 to 4 years, but they could be longer or shorter. As the contract expiration date approaches, the parties typically re-engage to negotiate a successor contract. In successor bargaining, all terms and conditions of employment are once again subject to negotiation/change.

What happens if a union and the University are unable to reach agreement on a labor contract?

If a union and the employer cannot reach agreement after engaging in good-faith bargaining, normally the employer makes its final proposal, often called a “last, best, and final offer.” In response, the union normally will ask its members to vote on the proposal. If the members of the bargaining unit vote to accept (or “ratify”) the offer, then the parties have a collective bargaining agreement.

If the members of the bargaining unit reject the offer, then there is no agreement. If this happens, the union may decide to strike. Also, with or without a strike, once a genuine “impasse” is reached, the employer has the right to implement unilaterally its last, best, and final offer. If this happens, the parties are still obligated to continue bargaining in an effort to reach an agreement.

How will unionization impact my current stipend and other benefits?

There is no way to know the answer to the question until a collective bargaining agreement is finalized. The compensation and benefits that you currently receive could diminish, improve or stay the same.

What rights will the University have under a labor contract?

Often, in labor contracts employers expressly reserve their right to run their operations, in what is called a “management rights” clause.

Can the University make exceptions to provisions in the contract to accommodate the needs of individual members of the unit?

No, unless such exceptions are agreed to by the union.

What if graduate students decide later that they do not want a union? When is the next opportunity to vote out the union or change to another union?

Once a union is in place, it may stay in place indefinitely. The process of ending representation by a union, called “decertification,” is subject to a set of legal rules and can be difficult to successfully accomplish. Once a union is voted in, it cannot be decertified for a minimum of one year. And if, during that one-year period, the union and Northwestern sign a collective bargaining agreement, that agreement will serve as a bar to any attempt to decertify the union for up to an additional three years.

Union Representation

Are international graduate students eligible to be in the union?

Yes. Being in a union does not impact student visas or immigration status, and eligible international students are included in the bargaining unit definition.

Will graduate students be in the union for the duration of their studies?

No. Graduate students will alternate between being in the union and not being in the union based on the NLRB-certified definition of the bargaining unit and if they are providing instructional or research services for the University in any given quarter.

Faculty Considerations

Can you provide some concrete examples of how having a graduate student union will change things for faculty members?

Faculty may be limited in their ability to work directly with an underperforming graduate student who is struggling with their teaching or research without a “union steward” present. Faculty also may be limited in their ability to grant special requests, such as a change or accommodation to the schedule, hours, assignment or other facet of a graduate student’s teaching or research appointment.

How will a union impact graduate students who are funded by grants instead of by the University?

Union negotiations over financial support for graduate students included in the bargaining unit could result in support increasing, decreasing or staying the same, regardless of the funding source. For faculty members who are funding students from their grants, the union negotiation and contract may impact the level of financial support for these students. An increase per student may result in smaller student cohorts; a decrease may result in larger cohorts.

How will unionization or a union contract affect working hours for graduate workers in laboratories?

We don’t know at this point because topics like hours of work, paid leave, paid holidays and such will be part of the contract negotiation. However, the NLRB has recognized an employer’s right to maintain control over its fundamental operations. 

For more than 160 years Northwestern has operated as an educational institution, and it will not relinquish its authority over academic matters. It is the University’s view that a graduate student’s own, self-directed thesis or dissertation work, including research that is integral to such efforts, and/or time spent on self-directed academic efforts towards degree requirements, as well as academic expectations and performance should be outside the purview of a collective bargaining agreement.

Can faculty members discuss unionization with graduate students?

Yes. Everyone has the right to discuss their opinions. However, faculty and staff members must follow the “no TIPS” guidelines, as in “no Threats, Interrogation, Promises, or Surveillance.” You can read more about TIPS on the Faculty Discussion Guide webpage.

In addition, faculty and staff members should not engage in “direct dealing” with students about pay, benefits or other working conditions, nor discourage or prohibit students from discussing terms and conditions of graduate appointments.

What does it mean to maintain the status quo until a collective bargaining agreement is finalized?

During this interim period between the union election and the ratification of a collective bargaining agreement, the University must maintain the status quo with respect to graduate student “terms and conditions of employment.” Generally speaking, this means that the University cannot unilaterally change aspects of graduate students’ appointments (including pay and benefits) without prior discussion with the union.

Can I hold graduate students to the same academic and performance expectations as before?

Yes, faculty and staff members can and should continue to engage with their graduate students as they have in the past and hold them to the same academic and performance expectations as before. This includes assigning duties, setting work schedules, evaluating performance and providing feedback, and addressing misconduct.

Graduate Student Support

What is the annual investment Northwestern makes for a PhD or MFA student?

All PhD students currently receive a minimum (base) annual stipend of $35,196 for a minimum of five years (20 quarters), full tuition scholarship, and subsidy to cover the NU-SHIP annual healthcare premium (an annual value of $4,698). As of this fiscal year, MFA students also are fully funded when registered full-time in a funded registration. This is a combined benefit of $39,894, plus the cost of tuition, which is $74,756 for four quarters for first- and second-year PhD and MFA students who are funded by the University. The advanced tuition rate (starting in Year 3) is then $18,688 for four quarters. The minimum annual stipend will be $36,960 for the 2023–24 academic year, representing a 5% increase from the previous year.

What financial support does Northwestern provide for doctor of musical arts (DMA) students?

Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music provides DMA students with $7,200–$9,000 annually depending on degree program and is one of a very few universities to guarantee full tuition scholarships with a stipend to all admitted DMA students.

What is the total investment Northwestern makes for a PhD student?

It varies by the number of years it takes to complete a PhD, but in general it is $500,000 per student including tuition, annual stipends, and a subsidy of the annual health insurance premiums and health services fees.

Do some PhD programs set a higher stipend amount?

Yes. The minimum (base) annual stipend rate for PhD students is $35,196, but some programs set a higher amount that is paid by that school. The minimum annual stipend will be $36,960 for the 2023–24 academic year, representing a 5% increase from the previous year.

Can graduate students in a union continue to work directly with their program or department on issues of concern or importance?

That depends on the issue. If the issue is related to wages, benefits or working conditions, the union will serve as the representative and graduate students may be limited in how they discuss these topics with their program or department.

What is the current process if a graduate student wants to report a grievance, misconduct issue, or policy violation?

Northwestern has a robust and effective process for handling complaints or grievances from students. Generally, the best place to start with these concerns is your adviser, director of graduate studies or your department chair.

Also, The Graduate School (TGS) often works in partnership with programs to resolve issues of misconduct or violations of University policy. TGS recognizes that conflicts between graduate students and faculty sometimes arise and outlines the steps graduate students can take to attempt to resolve such conflicts on the TGS website, including potential courses of action.

In addition, Northwestern provides several confidential mechanisms to report misconduct or policy violations:

  • EthicsPoint is a simple online system for reporting activities that may involve misconduct or violations of University policy. The University’s Policy on Non-Retaliation (included in the link) prohibits retaliatory action against anyone for reporting or inquiring about potential breaches of University policy or for seeking guidance on how to handle suspected breaches.
  • Reports of sexual misconduct, discrimination and discriminatory harassment may be reported to Northwestern’s Office of Equity, which safeguards against retaliation in its disciplinary review process. 
  • You also can reach out to Northwestern’s Office of the Ombudsperson, which provides confidential and informal assistance for resolving university-related concerns. The ombudsperson serves the entire Northwestern community, including students, faculty and staff. The ombudsperson is independent of Northwestern's formal administrative structure and considers all sides of an issue in an impartial manner.

Questions? Submit them here.

Updated June 5, 2023