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Frequently Asked Questions on Graduate Student Unionization

Updated April 2, 2018

OVERVIEW

What is the latest on gradudate student unionization efforts at Georgetown?

On April 2, 2018, the University reached an agreement with the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees (GAGE), a group of graduate students affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which would allow for an election among eligible students on whether they wish to be represented by a union.

Today’s agreement creates a new framework recognizing that graduate students’ relationship with the University is fundamentally an educational one, while also responding to their desire to have a stronger voice in the terms of their service as Graduate Student Assistants.

What is the recent history of graduate student unionization at Georgetown?

On Nov. 1, 2017, GAGE asked that the University voluntarily recognize GAGE/AFT as the collective bargaining representative for a group of graduate student assistants at Georgetown.

On Dec. 4, 2017, Provost Robert M. Groves and Executive Vice President for Health Sciences Edward B. Healton informed GAGE that, after careful consultation and serious consideration, Georgetown University would not recognize it as the collective bargaining representative without first holding an election among eligible graduate students. They also expressed their view that graduate students’ relationship with the University is fundamentally an educational one.

At the end of December 2017, GAGE/AFT proposed Georgetown enter into an agreement for an election that would be administered by a neutral third party, the American Arbitration Association (AAA), rather than by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which typically oversees union elections. Georgetown gave this proposal serious consideration and determined it could provide an opportunity for a framework that would recognize that our graduate students’ relationship with the University is fundamentally an educational one, while also responding to graduate students’ desire to have a stronger voice in the terms of their service as Graduate Student Assistants. Since that time, Georgetown has met with representatives of GAGE/AFT in a good-faith effort to fashion an agreement that would meet these two objectives.

On April 2, 2018, GAGE/AFT and Georgetown reached agreement on the terms of an election agreement that the University thinks reflects and honors the principally academic relationship of graduate students to the University while enabling them to have a greater say in the terms of their service as Graduate Student Assistants. A copy of the election agreement can be found here. The agreement defines the Graduate Student Assistants who are eligible to vote in the election.

What is a private election agreement?

A private election agreement is a voluntary agreement that sets out the terms under which an election for a union shall be conducted. A private election agreement is administered by a third party such as the American Arbitration Association rather than by the National Labor Relations Board.

What is the difference between an election ordered by the NLRB and a private election agreement?

A private election agreement is administered by a third party, such as the American Arbitration Association, rather than by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB is a federal agency created to enforce the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA is a federal law originally passed in 1935 to protect the rights of employees and employers by, among other things, safeguarding employees’ rights to choose whether to be represented by a union. The process under a private election agreement is similar to the process in an election conducted by the NLRB, but the functions performed by the NLRB are instead performed by a neutral arbitrator guided by the terms included in the election agreement.

If a union is approved, what matters are subject to negotiation?

Matters subject to negotiation include service hours, stipend levels, benefits, procedures for service-related grievances, and the impact of various academic decisions on commitments set forth in existing award letters or expected hours per week for graduate student assistants after a course assignment has been made.

Academic matters such as decisions relating to admissions, organization of departments/units/programs/courses, curriculum and degree components and requirements, academic decisions relating to Graduate Student Assistant appointments, establishment of University policies and related adjudication processes and sanctions, and resolution of academic disputes between faculty and students are not subject to bargaining.

Why is Georgetown voluntarily allowing graduate students to hold an election?

While Georgetown believes that graduate students have a fundamentally educational relationship with the University, we also appreciate their desire to have a stronger voice regarding the terms under which they serve as Graduate Student Assistants. The University believes that this election agreement negotiated between GAGE/AFT and Georgetown reflects and honors this balance.

How has the University reached its position on graduate student unionization?

The University has consulted with faculty members involved in graduate education, elected faculty leaders, the Provost’s Faculty Advisory Committee, deans of schools affected by the request for a union, and program directors and chairs of departments with large Ph.D. programs. The agreement addresses concerns from faculty by recognizing that, should graduate students vote to be represented by a union, core academic issues would not be subject to negotiation. On March 23, 2018, the Executive Committee of the Graduate School, the principal academic policy-making body of the Graduate School, passed a resolution in support of this approach.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

What is a union?

A union is an organization that represents a specific group of employees (or “bargaining unit”) for purposes of collective bargaining. A union negotiates a contract (or “collective bargaining agreement”) on behalf of its bargaining unit that establishes the terms and conditions of employment for those employees within the bargaining unit. A union also represents members of the bargaining unit when disputes arise between members and their employer.

Are any Georgetown employees represented by unions?

Yes. Georgetown is committed to providing fair and competitive compensation packages for University employees and full-time contract workers who provide services on its campuses in Washington, D.C. Georgetown has a long history of working collaboratively with unions representing its employees. 1199SEIU has represented Georgetown’s facilities employees for decades. Georgetown University police officers have similarly been represented by a union for decades and are currently represented by SPFPA. More recently, Main Campus adjuncts voted for representation by SEIU Local 500. In November 2017, the union membership ratified the second collective bargaining agreement between the University and Local 500. All of Georgetown’s unions were selected through an election process administered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

What is the Just Employment Policy and does Georgetown support unions and allow employees to freely associate and organize?

We are deeply committed to our Just Employment Policy, which provides fair and competitive compensation packages for University employees and full-time contract workers on campus, and affirms employees’ right to freely associate and organize. In this case, however, we believe that a graduate student’s relationship with the University is fundamentally an educational one, not one of employer and employee. Opportunities for students to conduct independent research and teach – under the mentorship of faculty members – are vital and often-required elements of the graduate-program curriculum. We believe that the relationship a faculty member has with these students is one of faculty and student, mentor and mentee. Students have such experiences because they are students, not because they are employed to provide those services. However, consistent with the spirit of the Just Employment Policy, the University has agreed to an election with GAGE/AFT which, if selected by a majority of voters in the election, would lead to bargaining over the terms of their service as Graduate Student Assistants.

Has Georgetown ever recognized a union without an election based on a majority of potential members signing authorization forms or cards?

No. All of Georgetown's unions were selected through NLRB elections, which provide for a secret ballot and strict procedures to ensure that there is no employer or union coercion of voters.

ELECTION PROCESS

Who would be covered by GAGE’s proposed bargaining unit?

This proposed bargaining unit would consist of students enrolled in Georgetown University Graduate School of Arts & Sciences graduate degree programs (Ph.D. and Master’s) and who also hold service titles as Ph.D. Research Assistants, PhD Teaching Assistants, Ph.D. Teaching Associates, Graduate Research Assistants, Graduate Teaching Assistants, Student Research Assistants, and Student Teaching Assistants (collectively, these positions are referred to as “Graduate Student Assistants”).

What is the American Arbitration Association?

The American Arbitration Association (AAA) is a not-for-profit organization which provides alternative dispute resolution services outside of the court system.

Has AAA administered other graduate student union elections?

Cornell University entered into an agreement for a graduate student union election administered by the AAA.

Who would be eligible to vote in the election?

Any graduate student who is serving as a Graduate Student Assistant (as defined above) during the semester in which the election takes place, or who served in such a position in the prior two semesters and who continues to be actively enrolled in Georgetown University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences graduate degree programs.

If elected, who would the union represent?

If GAGE/AFT is elected by a majority of voters, the union would represent all Graduate Student Assistants within the bargaining unit, including those who voted against the union or those who did not vote. Graduate students who are not included in the bargaining unit would not be represented by the union.

If the union is elected, who would have to pay union dues?

It is typical for all members of the bargaining unit to be required to pay dues or analogous fees to the union, regardless of whether they voted for or against unionization or didn’t vote at all. Questions regarding dues or other fees should be directed to GAGE/AFT.

What would happen if the union is not elected?

If a majority of voters vote against the union, GAGE/AFT would not become the union representative of the proposed bargaining unit.

Who decides which union would represent graduate assistants?

The choice of whether to be represented by GAGE/AFT will be determined by a majority of the eligible Graduate Student Assistants who actually vote in the election. There will not be another union on the ballot. All eligible Graduate Student Assistants will be bound by the choice made by a majority of those who actually vote in the election. If a majority of those who vote choose GAGE/AFT, then GAGE/AFT will become the collective bargaining representative of all Graduate Student Assistants in the bargaining unit. If a majority of those who vote choose not to be represented by GAGE/AFT, then GAGE/AFT would not be the collective bargaining representative of any Graduate Student Assistants.

How would an election process work and what is the timeline?

The election process is set out in detail in the election agreement. The election would be held on multiple dates, at multiple times and locations on campus. Once those specific dates, times and locations have been determined, election notices will be distributed to all eligible Graduate Student Assistants via their University email addresses. If an eligible Graduate Student Assistant is unable to be on campus on those dates and times due to a University, School, or department-approved program or activity, s/he can request an absentee ballot from AAA within seven days after the election notice is distributed.

What if I was a teaching assistant the semester prior to the election, but I’m on a fellowship for the semester in which the election is held. Can I vote?

Yes, any Graduate Student Assistant who is serving in a position that is included in the unit described above during the semester in which the election takes place or who served in such a position in the prior two semesters and who continues to be actively enrolled in Georgetown University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences graduate degree programs is eligible to vote. A “semester” is defined as either the fall or spring semester and does not include the summer.

Who should vote if an election is held?

Every Graduate Student Assistant in the bargaining unit described above should educate themselves about the election and vote. The election will be determined by a majority of those who actually vote. All Graduate Student Assistants will be bound by the choice made by those who actually vote.

Can I see the proposed contract, including the list of terms and conditions of employment, before I vote?

The election agreement, which includes items that are and are not subject to negotiation in a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), can be found here. The CBA will only be negotiated if and when Graduate Student Assistants vote to have the union represent them.

If I object to a specific provision in the labor contract, am I still bound by it?

If Graduate Student Assistants vote to have GAGE/AFT represent them and GAGE/AFT negotiates a collective bargaining agreement with Georgetown, all Graduate Student Assistants in the bargaining unit will be represented by GAGE/AFT and bound by the terms of the CBA.

How much are union dues and how do students pay them?

Questions regarding dues or other fees should be directed to GAGE/AFT. Typically, if a union is elected and a CBA is negotiated, all members of the bargaining unit will be required to pay dues or fees to the union, even if they did not vote in the election or voted against the union.

GRADUATE STUDENT LIFE AT GEORGETOWN

What is the University doing to enhance resources provided to graduate students?

Georgetown is committed to continuing to enhance the resources provided to graduate students and will continue to discuss these issues with students, including those who are active in GAGE, regardless of the outcome of the election. The Graduate School has significantly increased doctoral stipends since the 2011-2012 academic year, and will continue to do so. The Graduate School also increased the level of non-service support during coursework years and now offers beginning to advanced language training over the summer. More recently, the Graduate School capped teaching at one course per semester, added a second graduate student to the Executive Committee of Graduate Studies, and opened new graduate student spaces on campus. Finally, the Graduate School increased recognition awards for graduate-student teaching and research efforts. Currently, Assistant Vice President for Student Health Vince WinklerPrins is engaged in ongoing discussions with graduate students with respect to improving health insurance offerings for all students. These steps are consistent with our goal of attracting the strongest students who will contribute to the collective intellectual growth of the Georgetown community and help build an excellent research institution.

How can graduate students currently have a say in their experience?

Georgetown works closely with graduate students and is consistently working to enhance the graduate student experience. For instance, two graduate students, at least one of whom is a Ph.D. candidate, serve on the Executive Committee of the Graduate School, which is the principal policy-making body of the Graduate School. The Provost has established a Student Advisory Committee and Committee for Diversity in which students provide feedback on important issues. Graduate students also serve on the Sexual Assault and Misconduct Advisory Committee, and beginning in the Spring 2018 semester, graduate students serve on the Student Health Advisory Council. In addition, academic departments work directly with graduate students on issues regarding their programs. Finally, the Georgetown University Graduate Student Government (GradGov) is the chief representative body for all graduate students on campus and represents graduate students before the faculty and administration of the university.

GRADUATE STUDENT UNIONIZATION EFFORTS AT OTHER INSTITUTIONS

Is it the established law that graduate student assistants are employees?

The controlling federal law – the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) – does not specifically include graduate students in the definition of “employee.” The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issues rulings interpreting the statute. After the NLRB first asserted jurisdiction over private universities in 1970, the NLRB held that graduate assistants are primarily students, and therefore not eligible to organize. In 2000, the NLRB changed course, holding that graduate assistants meet the criteria to be considered employees and are entitled to unionize, but this holding was reversed in 2004, when the NLRB again held that graduate student assistants are students, not employees, for the purposes of the NLRA. This remained the NLRB’s interpretation until August 2016, when its Columbia University decision found that graduate student assistants are employees with the right to organize.

These changing NLRB interpretations reflect different understandings of the graduate student experience and the role of teaching and research in graduate education. Georgetown, like many other private universities, believes that a graduate student’s relationship with the University is fundamentally an educational one, not one of employer and employee. The opportunity to conduct independent research and to teach is a vital component of a graduate education.

Are there graduate student unions at other universities?

We are aware of only one private university – New York University – that has recognized and entered into a collective bargaining agreement with a graduate student union. Graduate student groups at other private institutions have filed election petitions with the NLRB, and most of those schools have maintained that graduate student assistants are fundamentally students, not employees. Elections have been held on a number of campuses, with graduate students sometimes voting for a union, such as at Tufts University and the University of Chicago, and sometimes not, as was the case at Duke University and Washington University. A variety of claims relating to these elections have been brought before the NLRB, with results being challenged by both universities and unions. However, many of those claims are no longer pending before the NLRB because the unions chose to withdraw their petitions.

Graduate student unions exist at some public universities, but these universities are subject to state law, not federal labor law. State law often differs from federal labor law in many significant respects. For instance, state law may prohibit strikes and may protect certain academic decisions from collective bargaining. As a result, public universities may have more freedom in making academic decisions, such as teaching assignments, than a private institution, which would have to bargain for these protections.