What is a Union?

BUGWU-UAW is an organization of student workers joining together to build power, create a democratic workplace, negotiate improvements to our working conditions and secure our benefits in a binding contract that cannot be unilaterally changed by the university administration.

Why are we forming a union?

As graduate workers, we do a large amount of the teaching, grading, research, and administrative work at BU. Through collective bargaining, we can (1) have a voice in decisions at BU that affect our employment and our ability to help make BU a great educational institution; (2) ensure livable wages, adequate benefits, clear workload expectations, resources for professional development, and transparent employment policies; (3) join a community of tens of thousands of unionized graduate workers, postdoctoral researchers, adjuncts, and part-time faculty working across the country; and (4) have the power to negotiate with the administration as equals to fight for the benefits we need, shape conversations about the BU’s future, and ensure our contribution to the community is respected and properly compensated.

How does a union give us a voice?

Every graduate worker will have a voice in making decisions for BUGWU-UAW and in democratically determining our priorities and leaders. All members can shape our priorities by serving on committees, through formal bargaining surveys, informal input, and by participating in the bargaining process itself. All contract proposals will come from BU graduate workers. During the process of collective bargaining, we will decide by majority vote if a proposed contract is good enough to be ratified.

Why the UAW?

The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) is one of the largest and most diverse unions in North America. Although it began as a union to represent automobile workers, the UAW has expanded and now has members from a broad range of professions in workplaces ranging from multinational corporations, small manufacturers, and state and local governments to colleges and universities, hospitals, and private non-profit organizations. The UAW has more than 400,000 active members in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Canada and has contracts with over 1,600 employers.

The Boston University Graduate Workers’ Union has chosen to affiliate with the UAW. UAW’s role will be to provide advice and assistance to our union during the unionization campaign, the contract negotiating process, and beyond. However, all the members of BUGWU-UAW will be BU graduate workers. Though the UAW International Union will provide counsel, we make the decisions about actions our union takes.

Why are graduate employees organizing across the country?

We keep our universities going by teaching and conducting research, but we have little say over the working conditions that affect our studies and our futures. Graduate workers want to have a stronger, more unified voice on campus. Like many non-tenure-track faculty across the country, we want to improve our pay, benefits and workload, which can be difficult or impossible to address with the administration individually. Coming together to form a union allows us to create more equitable employment conditions. This is the ultimate goal of a graduate student worker union or organization, and this stability will inevitably enhance our students’ educational experiences and the quality of our academic lives.

Will having a union mean that all departments have to follow the same policies?

No. Through collective bargaining we will have a voice in any changes made to policies and a way to protect those policies that work for us. If something is working well in your department, there’s no need to change it. For example, if a change in policy would help teaching fellows but don’t make sense for research assistants, we don’t need to apply it to RAs. We believe that as graduate workers we know best whether a given policy is good or bad for us; that’s why we believe we should negotiate with the administration about these policies.

How is a union different from other graduate organizations like GSO, GPLC, and GWISE?

These organizations represent and support BU graduate students as students: they fund student groups, award grants, sponsor events, and communicate student concerns to university administrators. However, they are not labor organizations: they have no power to negotiate a binding contract on behalf of graduate workers, and the administration is under no obligation to act on any recommendations or requests they might make. A union can serve as support for these graduate organizations by negotiating stable funding for new and continuing graduate organization initiatives, such as conference travel grants and professional development events.

Does unionization create an adversarial relationship?

This has not been the case for other academic unions. In the many years during which graduate workers on 60+ campuses across the country have been unionized, there’s been no real evidence that collective bargaining has a negative impact on relationships between students and their advisors. Peer-reviewed studies concur, finding that “Union-represented graduate student employees report higher levels of personal and professional support, unionized graduate student employees fare better on pay, and unionized and non-unionized students report similar perceptions of academic freedom.”

Through unionization, graduate workers gain real power to deal with the administration when they have problems or grievances, allowing advisors to focus on teaching and mentoring their graduate students rather than on dealing with administrative crises. Furthermore, by giving graduate workers a voice in BU’s policy making process, a union can help us join the faculty in ensuring that the university prioritizes teaching and research. Academic success is a priority for every graduate worker, and we can make sure to negotiate a contract that reflects our priorities.

What protection do I have if I get involved?

Under federal law, it’s illegal for an employer to retaliate against anyone who is known to be involved in union organizing, and historically, universities have not retaliated against organizing graduate workers. If there were to be some form of retaliation against graduate workers suspected, the UAW would support and defend the rights of the graduate workers to organize. Needless to say, the more graduate workers are involved in BUGWU-UAW, the less likely it is that the administration would attempt any sort of action — given the prohibitions against it, university management is typically keen to avoid anything that might appear to be retaliation. And “getting involved” doesn’t require one to assume a high profile — graduate workers could choose to attend meetings of the organizing committee, become a department or lab leader, sign a letter, speak to several colleagues one-on-one, or simply vote yes.

What are the steps to becoming a union?

We will first run a “card campaign,” where graduate workers declare their support for BUGWU-UAW by filling out a Union Authorization Card. About four to eight weeks after a sufficient number of cards have been signed, we will demand recognition from the University. If the University is unwilling to agree to a free and fair process for certifying our union, we will file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board, which will hold a union election for all eligible graduate workers. Our goal is to build to supermajority support, and we are well on our way to achieving that goal. In an election, a union will be certified if more eligible members vote “yes” than vote “no.” BU’s administration will then be legally obligated to recognize BUGWU-UAW and bargain with us.


Once we are legally recognized, the collective bargaining process begins. Bargaining is where a committee of graduate workers sit down as equals with a committee representing BU’s administration to negotiate a contract that addresses working conditions, compensation, etc. These negotiations will be overseen by a neutral third-party arbitrator paid for by the UAW and BU. The length of time negotiations take can varies, but typically they last at least six months.

Will we have to go on strike?

No. We will go on strike only if we, BU grad workers, decide to. Although in the vast majority of disputes striking is not necessary, it is an important and powerful action when an employer persistently refuses to negotiate in good faith. When other options for bringing an employer to the bargaining table have been exhausted, we can decide, by voting, if a strike is necessary.
In the UAW, 2/3 of those participating in a strike authorization vote must vote yes in order to authorize the Union to call a strike. While a strike is most effective if we all participate, it is an individual decision whether or not to join in the strike: each worker has the right to choose whether they want to participate to a strike or protest of any kind. Striking is a last resort tactic and is rare: 98% of union contracts are ratified without a strike.

How much will dues be?

Dues for UAW members in Massachusetts are 1.44% of our individual gross salary. However, no graduate workers will pay dues until we have: (1) had our union legally recognized by the NLRB and the University or through an NLRB election; (2) negotiated our first contract; and (3) voted as a group to approve that contract. In other words, no one will pay dues to our union until we know exactly what gains we’ve achieved through collective bargaining; we decide when we have an agreement that is worth our dues money. Because of this, we can ensure that any increases in pay that we negotiate substantially exceed our dues, as has been the case for past unionizing graduate workers.

How do union dues benefit BU grad workers?

Union dues are split. About 40% would be used locally, for the BU Graduate Workers Union. Approximately 35% goes to the UAW International Union to support activities that benefit UAW workers broadly. The rest goes to the fund which supports UAW members when the majority vote to strike to win a good contract. Each of these helps BU graduate workers in a different way.

Local union funds ensure that our union can take on the specific needs of BU graduate workers. This includes resources to enforce our union contract and protect our rights to a fair grievance resolution, resources for legal advice on union issues that affect BU graduate workers, and to support all the day-to-day workings of our local union.

Funds going to the International Union cover a broad array of support services for local unions including, but not limited to:

  • Experienced negotiators who can help us to navigate our way through bargaining and advise us on effective enforcement of our contract,
  • Legal resources to advise and sometimes take our cause to the courts, in fact the UAW with the help of its legal team won the NLRB case that established our right to organize and protections under federal law,
  • Health care experts to help us to analyze the current health plan(s) and if necessary, develop proposals to improve our benefits,
  • Financial analysts to help local committees understand their employer’s finances so that we can take them on and win,
  • Auditors to help local unions keep their books in good order, so they can stay accountable to members,
  • Health and safety experts to investigate accidents and train members to fix health and safety issues in their workplaces,
  • Organizers to help other workers form unions, in the same way that UAW has supported the BU Graduate Workers Union organizing campaign.

The UAW Strike Fund supports all UAW members by ensuring that, should the members of a local decide to go on strike, an employer cannot “starve them out”. UAW members receive health benefits and a weekly stipend while on strike. When employers know that we have the resources to support long struggles, it is a compelling incentive for them to bargain fair and equitable contracts for our members without forcing a strike or lockout

Are graduate students really workers?

We are students and workers at the same time. When we teach undergraduates, conduct research, support faculty, and advise thesis writers, we perform the revenue- and prestige-generating labor that makes our universities work. In order to be paid, we must perform services under terms dictated by our advisors, departments, and university administrators. In August 2016, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate workers are employees under the National Labor Relations Act, giving us the right to bargain collectively over the terms and conditions of our employment.

I am an international student on a student visa, am I legally allowed to organize?

Yes. International graduate workers have the same legal rights to join a union as US citizens. For more information, see our International Student Campaign page here.

I’m a MA or MFA student worker. Am I eligible to join the union?

Yes! If you are working for the university in a non-administrative capacity, for example teaching or doing research, you are eligible to join the union. Masters student-workers face similar concerns while working that doctoral students face. For example, Masters student-workers have raised concerns around workload protections, inadequate teaching training, and a lack of a robust grievance procedure should the need arise. By joining the union, you add your voice to such issues, protect the benefits you like in a contract, and build power by joining a larger community here at BU working to create a more democratic workplace.

I am paid through an external grant. Am I covered by the union?

Yes, this is the case at other private universities where graduate workers have unionized. Your eligibility for the union is based upon the work you do at BU, not whether or not you are funded by an external grant.

Is it still possible to negotiate my compensation if I’m funded externally?

Yes. Currently, BU administrators unilaterally determine how much externally funded graduate students are paid, and those rates – as well as projected increases – are then factored into grant proposals to agencies like NIH, NSF, DOD, etc. With collective bargaining, we’ll be able to negotiate over those pay rates. Grant-funded RAs at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Washington, as well as postdocs at the University of California, have negotiated guaranteed annual increases to their pay rates through collective bargaining.

I am graduating soon. Why should I join?

You have seen firsthand both the challenges of working as a student employee and that which may have worked well during your time here at Boston University. The question to ask yourself is: “If I had a voice in how things are run here, could I make it better?” If the answer is yes, then supporting a union will give the future student employees here at BU that exact opportunity. Your support can ensure we can improve our working conditions while protecting what we like.

I am paid through an external grant. Am I covered by the union?

Yes, this is the case at other private universities where graduate workers have unionized. Your eligibility for the union is based upon the work you do at BU, not whether or not you are funded by an external grant.

Is it still possible to negotiate my compensation if I’m funded externally?

Yes. Currently, BU administrators unilaterally determine how much externally funded graduate students are paid, and those rates – as well as projected increases – are then factored into grant proposals to agencies like NIH, NSF, DOD, etc. With collective bargaining, we’ll be able to negotiate over those pay rates. Grant-funded RAs at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Washington, as well as postdocs at the University of California, have negotiated guaranteed annual increases to their pay rates through collective bargaining.

Will having a union mean that all departments have to follow the same policies?

No. Through collective bargaining we will have a voice in any changes made to policies and a way to protect those policies that work for us. If something is working well in your department, there’s no need to change it. For example, if a change in policy would help teaching fellows but don’t make sense for research assistants, we don’t need to apply it to RAs. We believe that as graduate workers we know best whether a given policy is good or bad for us; that’s why we believe we should negotiate with the administration about these policies.

Will we have to go on strike?

No. We will go on strike only if we, BU grad workers, decide to. Although in the vast majority of disputes striking is not necessary, it is an important and powerful action when an employer persistently refuses to negotiate in good faith. When other options for bringing an employer to the bargaining table have been exhausted, we can decide, by voting, if a strike is necessary.
In the UAW, 2/3 of those participating in a strike authorization vote must vote yes in order to authorize the Union to call a strike. While a strike is most effective if we all participate, it is an individual decision whether or not to join in the strike: each worker has the right to choose whether they want to participate to a strike or protest of any kind. Striking is a last resort tactic and is rare: 98% of union contracts are ratified without a strike.

I feel relatively content. Why should I join a union?

As graduate students, we are always thrilled to hear that our colleagues are happy with their working conditions. However, one concern is that because we don’t have a contract, the administration can change the policies that affect us at any time, without consulting us and without giving us any recourse. A contract provides stable funding for a clear length of time. Currently, award letters can be revoked or changed without notice. Moreover, any document you may have signed for your department, lab, or adviser which outlines your duties, working hours, teaching load, or research is not a legally binding contract and can be changed at any time.

For example, if a graduate worker is awarded a multi-year fellowship outside of her department (e.g. the Graduate Writing Fellowship or Core Writing Fellowship) late in her degree progress at BU, it can be revoked without warning when she enters her 8th year. As an individual, this student stands little chance of regaining her fellowship. Without a contract, limitations on funding for graduate workers are often unclear and may change from year to year.

This is not the only situation in which graduate workers are vulnerable to the University’s unclear policies or unilateral decisions. Another example is the possibility of changes to the health care costs and coverage available to graduate students. With a union contract, we can negotiate for inclusive health care coverage as well as dental and vision insurance.

Finally, having a union contract means that graduate student workers are protected when workplace disputes arise. Currently, there is no neutral, third party mechanism to resolve conflicts related to our working conditions. Graduate student workers need independent legal support in cases of sexual harassment, discrimination, unsafe working conditions, or any disputes related to our work at BU. A union contract ensures that we have additional protections against discriminatory practices in our workplace and that there is a fair and transparent grievance procedure.

With a union, we can negotiate a contract that will protect the benefits we like, while securing improvements in other areas. Because we all select our priorities and vote democratically on our contract, having a union means that we get to decide.

What have other graduate workers won through collective bargaining?
  • Contractually guaranteed, annual, across-the-board stipend increases and timely payments.
  • Enhanced dental, vision, and mental health insurance (including lower co-pays for services and prescriptions).
  • Improved family benefits, such as dependent health coverage, child-care subsidies and paid parental leave.
  • Workload protections that enhance the quality of research and education.
  • Vacation and sick leave.
  • Subsidized public transportation services.
  • Legal protections against discriminatory practices, sexual harassment and assault.
  • Improved disability access.
  • Access to gender neutral bathrooms and trans-inclusive healthcare.
  • Expanded resources for people of color.
  • A fair and transparent grievance procedure.
  • Elimination of discriminatory international student fees.
  • Access to immigration attorneys.

For more information on the gains that are possible with a strong union contract, look here.

As an international student, how would a union benefit me?

International graduate students have many reasons to join a union. First, the union can provide a voice and means of advocacy for international graduate students who don’t always know the U.S. university system. Second, the union can help ensure that departmental hiring practices are clear, open, and fair so that international graduate students don’t miss out on work opportunities. Third, since U.S. law prohibits international students from being paid for more than 20 hours of work per week, it is especially critical for international students that the minimum university stipend guarantees a decent living standard. Fourth, higher wages, a voice in our working conditions, better and more affordable benefits, a fair and enforceable grievance procedure, and respect as employees are things all graduate student workers and their families deserve.

Can I join a union in the United States if I am here on a student visa?

Yes!< Every international graduate student, regardless of national origin or type of visa, has the right to join a union. Your right to belong to a union is protected by the right to freedom of association guaranteed in the United States Constitution. In addition, the right to form and join a union for the protection of your interests is a part of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights(see Article 23). The visa requirement that foreign students may only accept employment associated with the university they attend in no way compromises the right to belong to a union. Graduate employees have formed unions and bargained contracts at many schools, and graduate employee unions have existed for almost 40 years. It is against the law for your employer (the University) to discriminate against you on the basis of your union membership or participation in legal union activities. See this pamphlet on your protected rights under federal law .

That discrimination exists against international students, however, is clear. This is another reason why international students should join the union and help fight for more protections. Only with a union, independent of the University administration, can you be assured that if you are subject to discrimination by the administration that there is a group that will stand behind you and will help to defend you.

Are there any restrictions on political activity by foreign students?

All foreign students enjoy the same rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association as U.S. nationals. Federal law protects your right to join a union. The only relevant restriction on political activity by foreign students is that they cannot make financial contributions to political organizations in the United States.

Are there any restrictions on my ability to participate in union activities such as picketing, rallies, and leafleting?

Political activities such as picketing, rallies, leafleting, demonstrations, etc., are forms of expression and free association, which are protected for foreigners in the U.S. (including foreign students with visas) as they are for U.S. nationals. It is against the law for your employer (the University or your supervisor/advisor) to retaliate against you for participating in these protected activities.

Will my union membership or union activity affect visa applications that I might make in the future?

No. It is against the law for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to ask you questions about your union membership or your legal union activities or to take them into account when reviewing your visa application. In the past there was a question on the visa application form asking the applicant about his/her union activities. But this question was removed from the application form several years ago.

Will joining a union negatively affect my status at the university?

No. In nearly 40 years of graduate employee unionization, there is no reported instance of any international student having problems with the law or with their visa status as the result of their union activity. It is against the law for the university to retaliate against you for union activities. See this pamphlet on your protected rights under federal law . It is also highly unlikely that a university would charge you with violating university regulations as a result of your union activities. But if they did so, this would probably be found illegal. There is no known case of any international student being expelled from the university as a result of union activities, nor would such an expulsion be legal. There is one known case at Yale University, which charged two international students with academic misconduct for their participation in strike activities. The charges were subsequently dropped.

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