Graduate Student Unionization Efforts, List, and Statistics

Graduate students unionize for several reasons including for higher salaries, improved health benefits, and better working conditions.
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Updated on February 6, 2024
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Data Summary

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    In July 2021, there were roughly 124,500 student workers represented in higher education unions.[1]
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    Across the nation, graduate student union dues typically range from 1.5-2.5% of gross pay.
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    Graduate student employees at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, successfully formed the first voluntarily recognized union for student employees in 1969.Note Reference [1]
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    The number of undergraduate student unionizations has skyrocketed in recent years, the first one being in 2016 by the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers.[2]
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    Roughly 48,000 workers across the University of California system's 10 campuses went on strike from mid-November to the end of December 2022 — the largest recorded higher education strike.[3]
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    Union organizers say starting a union is hard, but creating a healthy and functioning union takes even more work.

According to data collected and maintained by the WashU Undergraduate and Graduate Workers Union, there were roughly 124,500 student workers represented in higher education unions in July 2021.Note Reference [1] Including staff, faculty, and postdoctorates, unions represented almost 1 million (932,000) workers in higher education.

Estimates of Higher Education Union Representation Across Occupations, July 2021
Occupation Number of Workers Represented in Union
Staff 480,000
Faculty 316,500
Student Workers 124,500
Postdoctorates 11,000
Total 932,000
Source: WashU Undergraduate and Graduate Workers UnionNote Reference [1]

In this report, discover the history of graduate student unionizations and notable strikes. Learn about existing unions and undergraduate union statistics.

Graduate Student Unionization: History and Current State

1969: First Graduate Student Union Emerges

Graduate student employees at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, successfully formed the first voluntarily recognized union for student employees in 1969.[4] The union negotiated a contract in 1970.

These students weren't the first to try to unionize.

University of California, Berkeley, students attempted to unionize around this time. However, that union was never formally recognized, and it eventually disbanded.

1974: Student Unions Take a Step Back

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in 1974 that research assistants within the Stanford University physics department did not have the right to unionize.Note Reference [4] The NLRB stated that they were primarily doctoral students, not employees.

Federal precedent remained unchanged for the next two decades, impacting students at private colleges and universities.

2000-2015: Legal Ping Pong

Beginning in 2000, the legality of graduate student unions at private institutions largely depended on which president was in power.

The NLRB — composed mostly of President Bill Clinton's appointees — ruled that New York University graduate assistants had the right to unionize in 2000.Note Reference [4] This led to a flood of unionization efforts at other institutions.

Under President George W. Bush, that precedent was reversed in 2004. Following the change, NYU refused to negotiate a new agreement with graduate students.

2016: NLRB Counts Grad Students as Employees

In August 2016, President Barack Obama's NLRB voted that Columbia University undergraduate and graduate teaching assistants count as employees and are covered by the National Labor Relations Act.Note Reference [4] This ruling granted students the right to unionize once again.

And this right remained, even under President Donald Trump.

After the 2016 election, student unions withdrew their NLRB claims so that pending cases wouldn't overturn the Columbia University case. Essentially, without any cases to review, the NLRB did not have the means to overturn its precedent. The board attempted to overturn the Columbia case through regulatory action in 2019, but President Joe Biden withdrew the proposed rule in 2021.

2020-2023: Labor Activism Rises Post-Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic spurred a new wave of student activism and unionization.

William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, told BestColleges that the pandemic highlighted the benefits of a union to many. New organizing efforts at corporations including Amazon and Starbucks have revitalized and shed light on the labor movement in the U.S.

My general sense is that the pandemic has reshaped and caused people to reevaluate their relationship to work and their relationship to employment, Herbert said. One of those shifts has been the realization of the importance of having a union in place.

List of Universities with Graduate Student Unions

The first official graduate student union formed at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was in 1969.

Forming a union is not always a straightforward process. Students at several universities, including schools in the University of California system and New York University, have formed unions only for them to be disbanded then reestablished years later.

Graduate Student Unions and Their Founding Years
School Union/Organization Name Year Established
University of Wisconsin, Madison Teaching Assistants' Association (TAA) 1969
University of Michigan Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO) 1975
University of Oregon Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF) 1976
University of Massachusetts, Amherst Graduate Employees Organization (GEO-UAW Local 2322) 1990
Stony Brook University (SUNY) Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU-CWA Local 1103) 1993
Yale University Local 33 UNITE HERE! (GESO) 1995, 2023
University of California System UAW Local 2865 1999, 2008, 2019, 2021
New York University Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC-UAW) 2000, 2012
Temple University Temple University Graduate Student Association (TUGSA) 2001
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO) 2002
University of Washington UAW Local 4121 2004
University of Illinois, Chicago Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) 2004
Columbia University Student Workers of Columbia University (SWC-UAW) 2016
The New School Student Employees at the New School (ENSE-UAW) 2017
Loyola University Chicago Loyola Graduate Workers' Union (LGWU) 2017
University of Chicago Graduate Students United (GSU) 2017
Tufts University Tufts University Graduate Workers Union 2017
Harvard University Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU-UAW) 2018
Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition (IGWC) 2021
Clark University Clark University Graduate Workers Union (CUGWU) 2022
Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT Graduate Student Union (MITGSU-UE) 2022
Boston University Boston University Graduate Workers Union (BUGWU) 2022
Northwestern University Northwestern University Graduate Workers (NUGW-UE) 2023
John Hopkins University Teachers & Researchers United (TRU-UE) 2023
University of Chicago Graduate Students United (GSU-UE) 2023
Dartmouth College Graduate Organized Laborers of Dartmouth (GOLD-UE) 2023
Duke University Duke Graduate Students Union 2023
University of Minnesota UMN Graduate Labor Union (GLU-UE) 2023
Cornell University Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU) 2023
Emory University EmoryUnite! 2023
University of Southern California Graduate Student Workers Organizing Committee (GSWOC-UAW USC) 2023
Stanford University Stanford Graduate Workers Union (SGWU) 2023
University of Maine University of Maine Graduate Workers Union 2023
Northeastern University Graduate Employees of Northeastern University (GENU-UAW) 2023
Syracuse University Syracuse Graduate Employees United (SGEU) 2023
Western Washington University Western Academic Workers United (WAWU-UAW) 2023
Note: This may not be an exhaustive list of all graduate student unions.
Source: Washington University, St. Louis, Undergraduate & Graduate Workers Union,Note Reference [1] Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition UEW,[5] National Labor Relations Board[6], MaineBiz[7],[8], CWU Observer[9]

Student workers at several universities are currently working to form unions, including at:

How Does Bargaining Work?

Bargaining looks different from school to school. University of Oregon's Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF) Staff Organizer Michael Marchman, gives a glimpse into how the process looks at the University of Oregon.

1. Union members present.

GTFF members give an overview of their demands and explain the reasoning behind them. They also provide the university with a stack of formal papers that outline the demands in more detail.

These initial meetings typically run around three hours long and anyone can attend, including someone who is not a union member.

In the most recent proposal, of which the negotiations started in March 2023, the GTFF presented roughly 18 article changes to their work contract. For context, there are around 40 articles in total.

One of the proposed changes was an increase in graduate employee (GE) salary. The proposed increase was 30% for the upcoming year, and then another 20% in the second year. Marchman explained that these percentages reflected the actual cost of living in Eugene.

2. The university can counter.

The University of Oregon counterproposed a 4% increase to the lowest level of graduate employee salaries (reserved for graduate employees with the least work hours) and a 0% increase to all other salaries.

The current pre-tax, monthly salary of a University of Oregon graduate employee hovers around $1,800 per month.

Graduate employee salaries vary based on whether the graduate employee is a master's or Ph.D. student, how far along the Ph.D. student is in their program, and whether they are a teacher's assistant or a solo instructor. Salaries — commonly referred to as stipends — can also differ by department, school, program length, and other factors.

3. Negotiations continue, as unions survey members to determine worker needs.

As negotiations proceed, GTFF members and university administrators meet more often and for longer periods of time — sometimes 12-hour negotiation marathons.

Building a proposal requires surveying members and talking to them about their needs. Determining worker needs necessitates consistent and open communication between workers and union representatives.

GTFF campus info station, with signs promoting union solidarity
Stations like the one pictured help organizers promote upcoming contract demands, recruit new members, and gain signatures. They also offer opportunities to hear from workers about additional concerns. Image courtesy of GTFF.

4. Parties finalize a contract.

It can take several months to finalize a contract between a university and union members. The university can also refuse to bargain or delay giving a counterproposal, prolonging the process even more.

GTFF's most recent bargaining proposal started in March 2023 and remains ongoing. The group held its previous negotiation in November 2018.

Any section of the contract can be revised during the term of the contract.[10] Union members typically meet regularly throughout the year even when there are no ongoing negotiations to discuss issues that may arise.

What Makes a Strong Graduate Union?

Marchman explained that starting a union is hard work in and of itself, but creating a healthy and functioning union takes even more work.

It requires many people investing many hours into the union and building relationships with colleagues to hear their needs. This explains why many attempts to create unions fail and many other unions disband.

Biggest Challenge to Building a Strong Union

Graduate students, especially those in doctoral programs, work closely with faculty who act as academic advisors. Marchman noted that many graduate students feel afraid that they might upset faculty if they were to voice their concerns.

Marchman explained that overcoming this fear and not feeling powerless are critical to creating a strong union.

Another challenge to unionization efforts are “right-to-work laws.” States that have adopted such laws allow employees to forgo union membership and avoid paying union dues, even in majority-union industries.[11] This means that joining a union and paying dues cannot be a condition of employment, even though unions represent all workers in a given industry.

These laws hinder unions, which largely depend on membership fees to function. That money can then be used to organize and hire paid staff to help manage operations.

As of January 2023, there are 26 “right-to-work” states plus Guam.Note Reference [11] It is much more challenging to form unions in these states.

How to Become a Graduate Student Union Member

Across the nation, graduate student union dues typically range from 1.5-2.5% of gross pay, according to Marchman.

While workers typically must pay membership fees to officially join their union, the union is required to represent all workers. For example, the University of Oregon's graduate union has 1,100 paying members but it represents all 1,450 graduate employees.

Union Dues Across Different Universities
School Membership Dues/Fees
University of Oregon 2.2% of Salary
Georgetown University 1.75% of Salary
Harvard University 1.44% of Salary
Stanford University 1.44% of Salary
University of Wisconsin, Madison $7-$36 (depending on salary)

Keep in mind that unions can help workers beyond those who work in universities. GTFF at the University of Oregon helped win a state law that provides paid sick days for all Oregonians in 2015.[12]

Why Do Students Unionize?

There is no universal reason behind why students unionize. However, there are some commonalities across organizing efforts. Student workers tend to want living wages for their work and consistency in the job description.

GTFF campaign laptop sign, which reads 4% won't make a dent when 50% of my wage goes straight to rent
Student organizers raise living wage awareness through signage. In this case, the graduate employee has it taped to their laptop. Other places can include office doors and office windows. Image courtesy of GTFF.

There are high turnover rates among student workers due to graduation. So, a union can provide a baseline from one generation of students to the next.

Erin Foley, a student organizer at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, told BestColleges that student resident assistants (RAs) successfully negotiated a raise to $15 an hour in 2022 without a union. However, the college made changes soon after that ultimately increased the workload for RAs after the negotiations.

It was then that Foley and others realized a union would create some year-to-year consistency for RAs.

Our unionizing effort from the start has really been about making the working conditions better for everyone, Foley said. It's been about protecting the job that we've fought so hard to improve conditions for ... and creating insurance for future RAs.

Keir Hichens, a student organizer at Grinnell College in Iowa, echoed that sentiment.

Hichens told BestColleges that unionizing isn't always about helping current students. The process can take years and often outlasts those who first get the ball rolling. The goal, instead, is to ensure better conditions for future students.

All this work, it's not just for our own benefit, Hichens said.

Students at Grinnell College have been looking to unionize since 2018. Those who started organizing have since graduated, but subsequent cohorts have taken up the mantle to advocate for higher wages.

Hichens explained that students must agree to on-campus work to receive student financial aid.

We're feeling like we're trapped in this system where the college can't run without our labor, Hichens said. But we're required to do that work on top of our classes.

The result is that students frequently feel like they must work beyond the 20 hours per week their jobs require. A union, Hichens hopes, could negotiate guardrails to prevent overworking students.

Again, it's about security beyond the current semester.

The role constantly changes, Foley said. And with so much uncertainty, we want to create some stability.

Graduate Student Union Strikes

Workers' demands can vary, but increased salaries, healthcare benefits, guaranteed work for specified timelines, and better protections are the most common reasons for graduate student union strikes.

The table below is not an exhaustive list of all of the major union strikes. However, it includes ones that involved a large number of strikers.

Major Union Strikes in Recent Years, 2021-2023
School Year of Strike Number of Strikers Duration
University of Michigan 2023 Not available Ongoing
Rutgers University 2023 Not available 5 days
Temple University 2023 300 6 weeks
University of California System 2022 35,827 6 weeks
University of Illinois, Chicago 2022 1,100 6 days
Indiana University, Bloomington 2022 1,100 4 weeks
Columbia University 2021-2022 1,804 10 weeks
Harvard University 2021 1,900 3 days
Source: Washington University, St. Louis, Undergraduate & Graduate Workers Union,Note Reference [1] Rutgers AAUP-AFT[13]

University of California System Strike

From mid-November to the end of December 2022, roughly 48,000 workers across the University of California system's 10 campuses protested for change, making it the largest recorded strike in higher education.

  • Of those on strike, a little under 36,000 were graduate student workers.[14]
  • Some of the changes that were enacted included a wage increase, childcare and paid leave, a non-discrimination and anti-bullying article in the contract, and accessibility accommodations.
  • As a result of the action, students secured a new minimum salary of $34,564.50.

Temple University Strike

During the Temple University Graduate Students Association Strike, the union demanded higher wages, increased healthcare coverage, and leave benefits. The strike lasted for six weeks and led to the university president's resignation.

Columbia University Strike

After two years of negotiations and a 10-week strike, Student Workers of Columbia (SWC) formally approved an agreement with the university in January 2023. Some notable wins included an increase in wages, an increase in childcare support, dental coverage, and access to mediation for harassment claims.

Undergraduate Student Unionization

Union organizing has not just been limited to graduate students: The number of undergraduate student unionizations has skyrocketed in recent years as well. Below are a few notable undergraduate student unions and student organizing efforts.

Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (Established 2016)

Started in 2016, the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers was the first union at a private college to represent both undergraduate and graduate student employees, which comes out to over half of the campus population.[15]

Temple University Undergraduate Workers Organizing Committee (Established 2022)

In September 2022, the Temple University Undergraduate Workers Organizing Committee (TUUWOC) formed to improve contracts for Temple University's undergraduate workers.[16]

As of March 2023, the organization represents nearly 125 student workers and hopes to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour.[17] Other demands include overtime pay and improved benefits.Note Reference [16]

California State University Student Assistants (Petitioned 2023)

With over 4,000 signed union authorization cards, California State student assistants have officially petitioned the California Public Employment Relations Board for a union election.Note Reference [17] Demands included more work hours, paid sick time, and higher wages.

The campaign outcome has the potential to affect thousands of working students across the California school system's 23 campuses.Note Reference [17]