Union FAQ

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What is the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)?

The NLRB is a federal agency created to enforce the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), a federal law to protect the rights of employees and employers. The law protects the rights of employees to choose or reject union representation.

What is a union?

A union, or labor organization, is an organization or association in which employees participate and which exists for the purpose, in whole or in part, of dealing with employers on wages, benefits, hours, grievances or other terms or conditions of employment. A union that represents a majority of employees in an “appropriate bargaining unit,” and that has been certified by the NLRB following an election or voluntary recognition by an employer, serves as the exclusive representative of that bargaining unit on all such matters involving wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. An appropriate bargaining unit is a group of employees who share a clear and identifiable community of interest sufficient to be represented by a union.
A union that has been certified by the NLRB, or that has been voluntarily recognized by an employer, negotiates a contract (also known as a collective bargaining agreement or “CBA”) on behalf of the bargaining unit to establish the terms and conditions of employment, including such things as wages, hours of work, benefits, and other working conditions. A union also represents its members when disputes arise over the terms of the contract.

What are union dues?

Dues are the cost of membership in a union. They are used to cover the costs of negotiating a contract, contract administration, and resolutions of grievances (claims of breach of contract). In addition, unions may also use dues for the purpose of organizing employees at other employers, and to make political contributions.

What does the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) say regarding negotiations?

Section 8(d) of the NLRA states:

For the purposes of this section, to bargain collectively is the performance of the mutual obligation of the employer and the representative of the employees to meet at reasonable times and confer in good faith with respect to wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment, or the negotiation of an agreement, or any question arising thereunder, and the execution of a written contract incorporating any agreement reached if requested by either party, but such obligation does not compel either party to agree to a proposal or require the making of a concession.

Is anything required to be in a collective bargaining agreement?

No, the NLRA does not require that any particular right or provision be part of a contract. Collective bargaining agreements normally have provisions on compensation and benefits, workload and assignments, hours of work, grievance procedures and a variety of other provisions, but no particular provisions are mandated by law. You may find some contracts have a particular provision but another contract might not — it all depends on what those parties have chosen to include in their agreements. The law requires good faith negotiations over mandatory subjects of bargaining. However, the law specifically does not require either party to make a particular concession or to agree to a particular proposal during negotiations.

What might be covered in a union contract?

The NLRA requires employers and unions to bargain collectively over “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.” These are called mandatory subjects of bargaining, over which the parties must negotiate.
Other topics of interest that do not fall under the umbrella of mandatory negotiations might be addressed by the parties as “permissive” subjects — topics over which neither side is required to negotiate. Items such as the hiring process and housing costs would fall into that category. In a case involving Columbia University graduate students, the NLRB stated that academic decisions remain the prerogative of the university.
There may be many issues of importance to our students that would not be considered mandatory subjects of bargaining under the law, such as concerns about student housing.
Some guidance about the terms and conditions that may be addressed in a contract can be gleaned from examining other graduate student contracts. For example, the contract between Harvard University and its graduate student teaching and research assistants represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW) covers numerous terms and conditions of employment such as salaries, benefits, working hours, and grievance procedures; nondiscrimination provisions; leaves of absence; job postings; and access to offices.
However, many rights are retained by Harvard. In the Harvard contract with the UAW, the university retains the exclusive right to determine and control the university’s mission, objectives, priorities, operations, and resources, among many other rights. Harvard also retains the right to control “all matters of academic judgment and decision-making, including ‘who is taught, what is taught, how it is taught and who does the teaching.’” All matters affecting research methodology and materials, and external grants including application, selection, funding, administration, usage, accountability, and termination are also retained by Harvard.
Also, there are great variations in union contracts because it is up to the parties to those contracts to decide what they will agree to and what they will not. The appearance of a clause in one contract — no matter what it is — does not guarantee that it will appear in another contract, even within the same institution.

How many graduate student union contracts are there around the country?

There are over 40 graduate student contracts, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions. The majority are at public universities; there are only ten graduate student union contracts in the private sector, at American University, Brandeis University, Brown University, Columbia University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, The New School, New York University, Tufts University, and Clark University. Additionally, several other graduate student unions have recently been certified by he NLRB, including at Boston University, Yale, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Chicago.