Skip to main content
Vanderbilt Background Photo

Frequently Asked Questions

The Facts You Need to Know About Graduate Student Unionization

Vanderbilt University's Position

Vanderbilt believes in education first. Vanderbilt has always taken the position that our graduate students are students first and foremost. Our students are not at Vanderbilt for the primary purpose of holding jobs or performing services on behalf of the University; rather, they are here for the true purpose of gaining a world-class education, including experiential opportunities for the practice of instruction and research that will prepare them well for their future careers as scholars, professionals, and academics in their own right. The University has a strong commitment to supporting our graduate students‘ education, including providing financial aid support and healthcare coverage at the University’s cost. Our overarching priority is to provide the highest quality educational experience.

Vanderbilt recognizes that if graduate students choose to be represented by a union, that decision has the potential to drastically change the nature of the relationship between the University and its students – from one of a faculty/student and mentor/mentee relationship, to that of an employer/employee relationship. Such a change is likely to fundamentally alter our current students’ academic experiences, as well as their careers and the careers of those to follow. Our goal is to provide factual information and to allow students make the best decision. Vanderbilt believes that when our students have all of the facts, they will recognize that they are better off without a union, even if a current federal ruling allows such a choice. In these FAQs, and in other communications from the university, we emphasize these points with the common message of “education first.”

Vanderbilt believes that graduate students are best served by remaining union-free for several reasons. First, the nature of unionization clearly interferes and works at cross-purposes with the close mentor-mentee relationships between faculty and graduate students. Since unionization converts the student-teacher relationship to that of supervisor-supervisee, the fundamental relationship becomes more formal, structured, and legalistic, rather than personal and flexible. We believe that such a change will be at odds with the strong academic partnership that is formed between students and mentors and that represents a central element of the graduate student educational experience.

Second, Vanderbilt prefers to interact directly with its students, rather than to interact through a third party with its own financial and political motives. Unionization would replace a collaborative, engaged learning model that has enhanced the experience and opportunities for graduate students with a collective bargaining model, a model originally designed for the industrial workplace that focuses on the use of economic levers, such as strikes, to achieve bargaining objectives rather than on a high-quality educational experience. Instead of one team united toward advancing learning, discovery and degree attainment, the University and its students could end up being on what feels like two opposing teams, divided by a third entity, a union, that neither knows Vanderbilt nor cares about the quality of the educational experience.

Finally, Vanderbilt has been and remains fully committed to its graduate students, including providing outstanding academic opportunities and financial support to assist with students obtaining their educational goals. In recent years, we have invested millions of dollars in additional funds to increase graduate student stipends. We also provide our doctoral students with excellent health care coverage and many other benefits to enhance the experience while a student at Vanderbilt. As evidenced by recent initiatives, such as the current planning regarding graduate housing and the Dean’s Graduate Readings program, we continue to look for ways to enhance the Vanderbilt graduate student living and learning experience. For a partial list of the graduate student enhancements that have been made in recent years, please see the Fact Sheet regarding graduate education first.

More information about graduate student union organizing and Vanderbilt’s position can be found on the Position Statement page.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in 2016 that graduate students engaged in teaching or serving as research assistants are “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) who may unionize and collectively bargain with their universities over the terms of their duties. As of February 2020, the board was considering a rule change that would reverse its 2016 ruling. The 2016 decision overruled decades of legal precedent and marked a fundamental shift from the way the NLRB had traditionally viewed the relationship between graduate students and their universities.

It is important for all to understand this process so that our graduate students are appropriately informed if they are approached by a union organizer. Under the 2016 NLRB ruling, our graduate students engaged in teaching or serving as research assistants have the right to form, join, or assist a labor organization, but equally as important, our graduate students also have the right not to do so.

No, teaching opportunities for graduate students are not going away. The Graduate School and the College of Arts and Science have launched multiple processes to assess and improve various aspects of our graduate programs. As part of these ongoing efforts, we asked faculty to identify the optimal balance of teaching opportunities, coursework and research for doctoral students in each A&S program. We also sought input from our graduate students. Our goal is to help prepare doctoral students to become effective college or university teachers in their fields while also emphasizing the research excellence central to success in postdoctoral and university job searches. With these goals as the context, Instructor of Record (IOR) opportunities for graduate students will not be eliminated. The timing and number of teaching opportunities may need to be adjusted in some programs in order to maximize students' academic and professional development, and these efforts wil be further enhanced through the offering of complementary career development activities.

Union Basics

A union is an organization that serves as a representative for a group of employees for purposes of negotiating with an employer to establish terms and conditions of employment, such as appointment terms, salary, and benefits. A union typically charges its members for providing this service in the form of dues and initiation fees. Often, a union has its own political goals and will use its resources to try to influence local and national public policy in pursuit of these goals.

We do not know. That depends on the union and can typically be changed by the union without the approval of its members. Sometimes dues are a flat annual rate, while other times they are a percentage of wages. The union also could require bargaining unit members to pay initiation fees.

No. Union dues are in addition to any fees charged by the University. It would violate federal law for the University to provide financial support to a union.

The National Labor Relations Board is an independent federal agency charged to administer the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRB issues rules and guidance under the NLRA, it conducts union elections, it prosecutes violations of the NLRA (unfair labor practices), and it issues case decisions interpreting the NLRA. The Board is made up of five members, who are political appointees, typically with three members from the party in power and two from the minority party.

Most union organizing drives involve efforts by a single union (as opposed to competing unions) to solicit voters to sign authorization cards. The initial contact between the union and potential voters could be initiated by a union, or it could be initiated by a potential voter who approaches the union first. Thereafter, paid union organizers would attempt to collect “authorization cards.” If a union can collect enough cards to constitute a valid “showing of interest” (a showing that 30 percent or more of the employees the union seeks to represent want union representation), the union can file a “representation petition.” The NLRB will then hold a secret-ballot election.

No. All students in the bargaining unit regardless of their international status would be represented by the union and covered by the terms and conditions of the union contract. It would still be up to the students whether or not they wanted to join the union and be a voting member under the Tennessee Right to Work law (see below).

A micro-unit is a relatively new phenomenon where a small identifiable group of voters may participate in their own separate union election. A union could decide that it wants to organize and try to represent all graduate students or it could decide it only wants to organize and try to represent a subset, or subsets of all graduate students. For example, a union might seek to segregate and represent graduate students in two different academic departments as a single micro-unit or separate micro-units.

The union’s motivations for seeking micro-unit distinctions can vary, but is typically based on the fact that the union recognizes that it does not have enough support to file a University-wide petition. The legality of a micro-unit involving graduate students has not yet been tested before the NLRB.

Authorization cards are signed, written, or electronic declarations submitted by members of a potential bargaining unit stating that they want a particular union to be their exclusive representative for the purposes of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment. Typically, unions collect authorization cards as part of an organizing drive – that is, an attempt to show that there is an interest in unionizing and a desire to have the union serve as the exclusive bargaining agent. A union can submit the cards in support of a petition for a representation election to the NLRB.

No, you do not have to vote for the union even if you signed an authorization card. Your vote is your voice and you may change your mind. Once a union is in place, however, it represents even those individuals who did not vote in support of the union, and it is difficult to decertify (remove) a union if it is voted into the University.

After obtaining an appropriate showing of interest (at least 30% of the group of students the union seeks to represent have signed union authorization cards), a union would file a petition for an election with the Regional NLRB Office. The petition is sent to the University with a notice of a hearing to be held by the Regional Director (RD) of the NLRB. The University is given the opportunity to provide its position on whether the proposed bargaining unit or any bargaining unit is appropriate. If the RD determines that the proposed unit is appropriate, the RD directs a secret ballot election for a specified date and time. During this process, the union and the University may campaign for or against unionization, though neither party may threaten, intimidate, or make promises to potential members. Individuals may also voice their opinions for or against unionization.

Unfortunately, yes. The University would be required to provide the union with the home addresses, home email addresses and home telephone/cell phone numbers of all eligible voters in the bargaining unit. Despite the University’s desire to protect your privacy interests, this requirement to turn over your personal information is mandated by federal law if the union gets enough support to have an election.

Graduate students opposed to a union may freely express their opinion to the Vanderbilt community, administration, professors and other graduate students and may organize in opposition to any such efforts. As highlighted at the beginning of this document, the University believes graduate students are best served by remaining union-free and that unionization has the potential to affect both the nature and the quality of your educational experience. We encourage you to express your opposition if you have concerns too.

As a right-to-work state, bargaining unit members in Tennessee do not have to join a union or pay any union dues as a condition of employment. However, typically, only dues-paying members of a union may vote to ratify or reject a union contract or participate in a vote or strike. Thus, only dues-paying union members set the bargaining terms and agree to terms and conditions of employment that apply to all individual members of the bargaining unit, even those graduate students that do not support a union or do not pay dues.

Union Election

This is very difficult to answer. The answer depends on when or if a petition is filed, the legal issues raised and how they are resolved.

An election to certify a union as the bargaining representative is decided by a majority of the votes actually cast by eligible voters. A tie goes to the University. A “Yes” vote means the voter wishes to be represented by the union; a “No” vote means the voter does not want to be represented by the union. Voters must actually vote in order for their voices to be heard. If there were an election at Vanderbilt and you didn’t vote, you would be letting other people control your future. For example, if there are 100 graduate students who are eligible to vote in a potential bargaining unit, but only 50 actually vote, the Union only needs 26 “Yes” votes to form a union that exclusively represents all 100 students. Once a union is formed, it negotiates the terms and conditions of employment for all members of the bargaining unit, whether they voted for the union or not.

This depends on whom the union seeks to represent and the NLRB decision on who is eligible to vote in a union election. Depending on how the union’s petitioned-for unit is crafted, the University could challenge the union’s proposed unit if the group does not have a sufficient “community of interest.”

Yes. Voting is by secret ballot and the election is conducted by employees of the NLRB. Union representatives and University officials may not be present at the voting locations during the actual vote.

Yes. Faculty and students may speak freely to each other about the issues surrounding unionization. Students may also speak with University administrators regarding unionization. University administrators respect the personal opinions and privacy of our graduate students, and will not interrogate students about their union views.

No. It violates the National Labor Relations Act, University policy, and our values to retaliate against a person because of their union views.

The union would get the right to charge you monthly dues in order to be a voting member. The union would serve as your exclusive representative in all dealings with the University regarding your terms and conditions of employment, including wages, benefits, and all other issues surrounding the terms and conditions of your employment. It is important to point out here the word “employment.” In essence, the winning of the election would effectively change the nature of your relationship with the university from one of student to one of employee. For many of the reasons articulated earlier, we believe that this change is not in the best interests of our graduate students.

Yes. The timing depends on the actual circumstances, but typically it is one year before another vote can happen.

Yes, however, the NLRB will not process a union decertification petition for at least one year after the vote. If the union and University agree on a union contract with a term of 3 years or longer, the NLRB will not process a union decertification petition for the first three years of the union contract. While decertification is possible, please understand it is difficult to decertify a union if it is voted into the University.

Collective Bargaining

No. The bargaining demands made by a union during contract negotiations are set by the union bargaining committee. The bargaining committee may be elected or appointed by the union and is made up of dues-paying members. Contract negotiation proposals are determined by the union after it is selected by the eligible voters to represent the bargaining unit. Once in bargaining, all terms and conditions of employment – wages, benefits, teaching responsibilities, etc. – are subject to negotiations. As a result of the bargaining process, these may stay the same, improve, or actually get worse.

Yes, whether or not a graduate student is a member of the union, all students in the bargaining unit are represented by the union and would be covered by the terms and conditions of the union contract. However, it is likely only those graduate students who join the union and pay union dues could vote on union business.

No. Since Tennessee is a right-to-work state, a person covered by a union contract need not join and pay dues to the union to be a member of the bargaining unit. However, that person is still bound by all terms and conditions of the union contract. Thus, important things like your pay, health insurance, and teaching responsibilities could all be negotiated by the union.

No. A union contract is a binding contract and, unless the contract states otherwise, exceptions are not allowed.

All matters related to wages, hours and working conditions are mandatory subjects of bargaining. It is unknown, however, whether matters that are purely academic (such as, assignment of grades for academic performance, dissertation committee assessments, and decisions regarding who is taught, what is taught, how it is taught and who does the teaching) would be pressed by the Union during bargaining.

The impact a union would have on any wages, benefits, or other terms and conditions of employment is unknown. There is a common misperception that the current terms and conditions serve as the “floor” or starting point for bargaining and can only improve with collective bargaining. This is not true. There is no guarantee that a union would negotiate improvements in pay, benefits or other working conditions. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the collective bargaining process would yield results more favorable than what might happen without collective bargaining. The University has always been committed to doing all it can to attract and retain the best and brightest students, and to ensure that their educational experience is world class. Indeed, and as highlighted in the associated fact sheet, the institution has advocated very strongly for additional enhancements to the living standards and academic environment for our graduate students. These changes have happened without any union present.

Vanderbilt offers a number of merit- and accomplishment-based awards that allow students to supplement their stipends and enhance their educational opportunities (e.g., topping up awards, travel fellowships, etc.). Unions typically oppose merit-based compensation during contract negotiations.

Yes, while it is possible that collective bargaining could result in represented graduate students getting more than they had when negotiations began, it is also possible that terms and conditions could remain unchanged or that represented graduate students could get less than they had when negotiations began.

No. Even if a union represented graduate students at several other schools, terms negotiated elsewhere would not apply here, and the University would not agree to the union's proposals simply because some other institution has done so, nor would it be required to do so.

If a union and the University cannot agree 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 there is no agreement, the parties may agree to restart negotiations, or the union may decide to strike. Also, once a genuine impasse is reached, the University may implement unilaterally its last, best, and final offer.

A labor strike is when a union and its members withhold labor from the employer to attempt to force the university to accede to union bargaining demands. Strikes are often accompanied by picket lines and disruptions. Strikers immediately lose their pay and compensation (stipends, etc.) and health insurance benefits. In Tennessee, strikers are not eligible to receive unemployment benefits. The process to call a strike is governed by the union constitution and bylaws. Often, a strike vote must be supported by a super majority. The process to call a strike is governed by the union constitution and bylaws. Often, a strike vote must be supported by a super majority. Only dues paying union members may vote to strike. During a strike, an employer may replace some or all strikers, sometimes permanently. During a strike, any student in the bargaining unit (dues paying or otherwise) may cross the picket line and continue their studies, teaching, and research, but may face serious fines from the union if they maintain their membership in the union.

You may want to read NLRB Chairman Philip Miscimarra’s dissenting opinion in the Columbia University decision on the impact of strikes in a graduate school context. He makes a compelling argument about why this possibility should be considered when analyzing whether graduate students should be permitted to unionize. A copy of the decision can be found at the NLRB’s website here.

We do not know how a union would affect the current structure of the GSC. Once in bargaining, everything is subject to negotiations. We do know that a union would be the exclusive voice for all students it represents on pay, work hours, and other conditions related to teaching and research assistantships. This means that other avenues of communication between graduate student teachers/research assistants and the University such as departmental/school leadership committees might be restricted or limited. The GSC may be strongly constrained in its ability to advocate for issues important to your education and quality of life.

We do not know how a union would affect the current structure of the departmental and school committees.

If a union ultimately became lawfully certified, the University would sit down and bargain in good faith with the union over the “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.” We can’t predict the outcome of those negotiations; every negotiation is different.

Often, in labor contracts employers expressly reserve their right to run their operations, and this reservation of rights is embodied in a “management rights” clause.

Not necessarily. There are at least two reasons comparisons to state universities are difficult. First, many states have written into their labor laws provisions that protect academic decisions from the collective bargaining process for public employees. These are often protections in the law that prevent unions from interfering in academic matters at public universities or from going on strike. Federal labor law has not been tailored to address the needs of higher education, and so these protections are not included in federal law and do not apply to a private university like Vanderbilt. As a result, there is more possibility that unions may to attempt to involve themselves in academic matters at private universities.

Second, graduate students fill different roles at private universities than they do at public universities. At public universities, the teaching opportunities and remuneration for doctoral students are often tied directly to the cost of educating undergraduates. At private universities, support for graduate students is not tied to how much it costs to teach undergraduates. Rather, teaching and research is viewed as a primary part of the educational experience for our graduate students, and not as an economic necessity for the University. At Vanderbilt, we have put policies in place designed to ensure that graduate students devote a majority of their efforts to their academic experience as students rather than serving in TA or RA positions.

Vanderbilt strives to create an open and collegial atmosphere, where all members of the campus community feel they have a voice and real input into their life at Vanderbilt. The Graduate Student Council (GSC) is a central example of how our graduate students have real opportunity to influence their educational opportunities. Vanderbilt is constantly improving and expanding on its methods and opportunities that allow graduate students to provide input, helping direct the future of the University. For example, the GSC has been very active of late in conversations with the Dean of the Graduate School on issues that relate to student housing, parking, grievance procedures and in soliciting and organizing suggestions and proposals as they relate to future investments in graduate education and research. The improvements the University has decided to implement are a result of the time honored tradition of collaborative engagement between the faculty and students, and illustrate that great progress can be made without the insertion of a contentious union model that is ill-suited for our academic environment. We encourage you to participate in these discussions, making sure your voice is heard.