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General FAQs

Last updated: April 17, 2024

Frequently asked questions about the ratification vote and implementation of the collective bargaining agreement can be found on the new Union Contract webpage.

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 graduate student union, with input and guidance from the NLRB.

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 become members of the union?

No, graduate students are not obligated to become members of the unionBut, it is important to understand that when a graduate student who meets the bargaining unit definition is providing research or instructional services for the University, they will be in the bargaining unit, subject to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, and represented by NUGW-UE Local 1122, regardless of whether they are a union member or not. In short, a graduate student worker can be “in the bargaining unit,” but choose not to be a “member of the union.

Are graduate student workers obligated to pay dues?

Under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, in order to perform bargaining unit work (i.e., provide research or instructional services for the University), a graduate student must either: 1) become a dues-paying member of NUGW-UE Local 1122 or 2) pay an “agency fee, in lieu of union membership, to NUGW-UE Local 1122. An agency fee is essentially a service charge to cover the union’s costs for administering the collective bargaining agreementNUGW-UE Local 1122 determines both the costs of union membership and the agency fee.

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.”

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”).

During negotiations, 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.

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 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). 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. The term of the collective bargaining agreement between Northwestern and NUGW-UE Local 1122 is March 15, 2024 through March 31, 2027.

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 enforced by the NLRB. When an employer and a union reach a collective bargaining agreement, covered employees cannot ask for a decertification election during the first 3 years of the agreement or until it expires.

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 bargaining unit for the duration of their studies?

No. Graduate students will alternate between being in the bargaining unit and not being in the bargaining unit based on whether they are providing instructional or research services for the University in any given quarter.

It is possible that two students in similar roles may not both be in the bargaining unit depending on what they are doing a particular quarter. For example, a graduate assistant who is exclusively performing administrative work in a quarter would not be in the bargaining unit, whereas one who is also a teaching assistant that quarter would be in the bargaining unit for that quarter. Being a graduate assistant or on fellowship is not the determining factor in and of itself when determining bargaining unit status. In addition, graders, tutors, and proctors, among others, who are not otherwise providing research/instructional services are excluded from the bargaining unit, per the National Labor Relations Board’s certification and the collective bargaining agreement’s recognition clause.

Graduate Student Support

Can graduate students in a bargaining unit 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.

Additional Faculty Considerations

Can faculty members discuss the union 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 in the Union Basics for Faculty section.

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.

Can faculty 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.