Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Unionization

In light of recent interest among some of our postdoctoral researchers and scholars[1] in pursuing a union at Princeton, we have decided to provide information and resources so that individuals can make an informed decision whether or not to choose to be represented by a union. We encourage you to consider this information carefully, as you may be asked to sign an authorization card, which, as explained further below, is a legally binding document.

The University’s Position

What is the University’s position regarding unionization of postdoctoral researchers and scholars?

By design, union representation would have a real effect on the nature of your relationship with the University. We believe it is essential for you to be fully informed before deciding whether or not unionization is right for you. In the sections below, we have provided background information about unions as well as some context regarding the potential impact of unionization.

What is the University’s approach to labor relations?

We currently have six labor unions on campus, representing approximately 1,000 staff members who work in such areas as facilities, dining, public safety and security, and certain aspects of the library. Our labor relations approach at the University has been civil, resolution-oriented, communicative, and relationship-based, all hallmarks of a productive relationship regarding their working conditions. At Princeton, union staff members include, for instance, housing and dining personnel and members of the Department of Public Safety. These positions differ in numerous ways from those of postdoctoral researchers and scholars.

Background Information about Unions, Unionization and Union Representation

What is a union?

A union is an organization that serves as an agent representing a group of employees for purposes of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment, such as pay, benefits and working conditions. The negotiation process is known as “collective bargaining.” A “bargaining unit” is a specific category of employees with a community of interest (e.g., similar occupations, geographic location, duties, payment structure, review/rating system, etc.) represented by a union for purposes of collective bargaining. When a union exists, the bargaining must be between the employer and the union, not between the employer and individuals represented by the union.

What is a union contract/collective bargaining agreement?

A union contract or collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is a legally binding contract between the employees within the bargaining unit and the employer, arrived at through negotiations between the employer and the union, which sets forth the terms and conditions of employment (e.g., wages, working hours and conditions, holidays, vacations, certain [but not all] benefits, etc.) and procedures for dispute resolution.

How does a group of employees become unionized?

Typically, a group of employees who want to unionize will affiliate with an established labor union for purposes of organizing a new chapter. Once the group has affiliated with a labor union, organizers employed by the union will collect “authorization cards” to show that at least 30% of the employees the union seeks to represent are interested in union representation.

If a union collects enough cards to constitute a valid “showing of interest,” the union (or the employer) can file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold a secret-ballot election. If the majority of eligible voters choosing to cast ballots vote to approve the union, the union becomes the exclusive representative of all the employees in the bargaining unit for the purposes of collective bargaining with respect to wages, hours, or other conditions of employment. Whether or not an employee in the bargaining unit voted to approve the union and whether or not an employee wants to join the union, all employees in the bargaining unit would then be represented by the union.

What is an authorization card? How are authorization cards used in the unionization process?

An authorization card is a signed document giving permission for a union to be the signer's exclusive representative for the purposes of negotiating the terms and conditions of that signer's employment. Unions collect authorization cards in an attempt to show that there is a substantial interest in unionizing and a desire to have the union serve as the exclusive bargaining agent. Thirty percent of the potential members of a bargaining unit need to sign cards for an election to occur.

Authorization cards generally must have a stated purpose of designating the union as the employee’s exclusive bargaining representative. Authorization cards are legal documents. They are the equivalent of giving a union power of attorney over the terms and conditions of your employment. Before signing any union-related document, be sure the document expresses a clear purpose and you understand what you are signing and its implications.

Once an individual has signed a card, can that individual take it back?

Under federal law, a union has no legal obligation to return an authorization card once it has been signed and submitted. Unless and until an election is held, an individual should assume that a signed authorization card is binding.

However, you can always ask the union directly if you can have your card back. In the event of an election, whether or not you signed a card creates no obligation on how you vote.

Am I required to provide my contact information to a union or sign any other document a union requests?

No. Although unions try to obtain information about potential voters during an organizing drive, you have no obligation to provide personal or any other information to them. Unions are not bound by privacy restrictions and can use your information for purposes of their choosing. However, if a union files a representation petition at the NLRB, the University will have to provide eligible voters’ contact information to the NLRB and the union.

How do unions obtain the right to represent employees?

Union representation can occur through either voluntary employer recognition or a secret-ballot election in which those eligible to be in the bargaining unit are invited to vote “yes” or “no” on the question of union representation. If a majority of those who vote choose union representation, all eligible voters (and those who occupy union-represented positions in the future) would be exclusively represented by the union in their dealings with the University concerning the terms and conditions of employment. This is true whether or not a particular member of the bargaining unit participated in the election.

What does it mean to be represented by a union?

A union that has been certified to represent a bargaining unit of employees serves as the exclusive representative of all employees in the bargaining unit with respect to the terms and conditions of their employment. The union typically has the authority and exclusive right to negotiate with the employer about these subjects, and no individual employee is permitted to engage in separate negotiations over their individual employment terms. For example, if a labor contract set parameters on the work hours of postdoctoral researchers and scholars, individual researchers would not be able to make personal arrangements with their Principal Investigator (PI), unless the contract provided for exceptions.

Why have some postdoctoral researchers at peer institutions supported unionization?

Some postdoctoral researchers at peer institutions have supported unionization because they believe, in the context of their university, it provides an avenue for them to advocate collectively for their interests as they relate to pay, hours and other terms and conditions of their employment. Not all researchers and universities take the same approaches or are in the same positions. That is why each individual should make an informed decision for themselves.

Are all labor unions the same?

No. Different unions represent postdoctoral researchers throughout the country, and each union, in conjunction with the members of its bargaining unit, sets its own goals, style and approach to bargaining.

Union Elections and Voting

What is the election process?

A representation election is a secret-ballot election conducted and supervised by representatives of the NLRB. Voting takes place in-person or via a mail-in process. An election is typically held several weeks after the filing of a representation petition. Each eligible voter is free to vote however they want in the secret-ballot election, regardless of whether the voter has previously signed an authorization card.

Who is eligible to vote?

Eligible voters are people who are part of the defined voting unit at the time of the election. The determination of which employees would be eligible to vote would be made by the regional director of the NLRB in the event a petition were filed. The outcome of any election is determined by a majority of those who actually vote, not the majority of those eligible to vote. The result of the vote is binding on all individuals in the bargaining unit as well as those who occupy union-represented positions in the future.

Could postdoctoral researchers or scholars “opt out” of the union by not voting?

No. The results of an election would bind everyone in the bargaining unit, including those who do not vote.

If there is an election and postdoctoral researchers and scholars vote NOT to unionize, can there be another election at a later date?

Yes. There is a one-year waiting period after an election until another election can be held. If a majority of voters voted against union representation, the same union or a different union could seek an election one year after the vote.

If an election results in representation by a union, could there be another election to remove the union?

Once a union is certified as the exclusive representative of a bargaining unit, it remains so indefinitely and would represent all employees defined in the bargaining unit. The process to decertify (remove or replace) a union typically also requires a vote, and it is a complex process.

Union Dues and Agency Fees

What are union dues and how are they calculated?

Dues are the cost of membership in a union. They are used to fund the various activities of the union. There are typically national, state and local fees. Dues are set by the individual union representing the employees. Typically, they vary between ~1% and 2% of pay or between ~$650 and $1,300 of a $65,000 minimum salary for a postdoctoral research associate at AY23-24 rates. Postdoctoral researchers and scholars who earn a higher salary would correspondingly pay more.

Would our stipend or compensation increase to cover the dues?

Compensation for research positions represented by a union would be subject to bargaining, but there is no guarantee that the negotiations would result in an increase or cover the cost of dues or agency fees, which would be paid by members of the bargaining unit.

What are agency fees and how are they calculated?

Agency fees are the fees required by virtually every collective bargaining agreement to be paid to the union by employees who are represented by a union but choose not to be dues-paying members. If your position is covered by a union collective bargaining agreement, and you are not a registered dues-paying union member, you will likely be required to pay an agency fee. That fee is determined by the union and is typically roughly equivalent to dues.

Do unions require an initiation fee?

Some unions require new members to pay an initiation fee. Others choose not to charge such a fee.

What are union dues and agency fees used for?

Union dues and agency fees are used to cover the costs of collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance resolution. In addition, unions use dues for the purpose of organizing employees of other employers. Agency fees generally are not used for this purpose.

Unions must annually disclose their revenues and expenditures on forms specified by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Collective Bargaining

What areas are generally subject to collective bargaining?

Topics of collective bargaining typically include wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment, such as health insurance, leave and dispute resolution procedures.

What areas are generally NOT subject to bargaining?

Matters unrelated to wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment are generally not subject to bargaining. Subjects relating to one’s academic work would generally not be subject to bargaining. For example, this could include decisions about research methodologies and decisions about whether to create, modify or eliminate research programs. These are academic and/or management issues, which collective bargaining agreements typically make clear are not subject to collective bargaining.

What if an individual researcher objected to a provision in the labor contract? Would that person still be bound by it?

Yes. Collective bargaining focuses on employees as a group, not as individuals. This means that a union would speak and act for all members of the bargaining unit, and the provisions in the labor contract would apply to all unit members, unless exceptions are provided for in the contract. The union would decide what to prioritize in negotiations, what not to advance in negotiations, and ultimately, what to agree upon with the University in a proposed contract. A contract is ratified by its membership according to the union’s bylaws.

How long does it take to negotiate a union contract?

It varies. The negotiation process for first labor contracts typically lasts a year or longer, during which time the status quo remains in effect (i.e., nothing changes during this time). However, it is impossible to predict how long contract negotiations would take. Likewise, it is impossible to predict the provisions of any negotiated contract.

Who negotiates the contract?

Typically, each side — management and labor — appoints a bargaining team to meet and negotiate the contract. Unions have their own internal rules about how members of a bargaining team are selected, and you should familiarize yourself with how that works. In addition, the union usually provides one or more paid union representatives — employees of the union — to lead or participate in the negotiations with management. The background and experience of the union negotiator is something you should become familiar with if a union is selected.

How long does a contract last?

There is no required length of time, but a union contract typically lasts for three years.

Will the contract guarantee increases in existing benefits and working conditions?

No one can predict the outcome of negotiations. Neither side is required to agree to a particular proposal. The contract is the outcome of good faith negotiations and give-and-take between the parties. Current benefits can go up, down or remain the same as a result of bargaining.

What happens if the union and the administration cannot agree on a contract?

Under federal labor law, unions are allowed to strike. Strikes can be divisive and confrontational, and have lasting impacts on an institution, its students, employees, graduates and others. Strikes are an unfortunate aspect of unsuccessful collective bargaining.

Dispute Resolution Under a Union Contract

How are disputes resolved if there is a union contract?

Union contracts have grievance and arbitration provisions for the resolution of disputes. The grievance and arbitration process can be time-consuming and often legalistic. If a particular dispute is not resolved between the parties, the contract will typically require it to be decided by an arbitrator, who is a neutral third-party skilled in labor relations who can decide the issue either in favor of or against the union, after taking evidence from witnesses offered by the union and the administration. Arbitration decisions are rarely overturned on appeal to the courts, as the legal standard of review is highly deferential and very limited in scope. Accordingly, the arbitrator’s decision for the parties is usually legally binding upon the parties indefinitely.

How could a union impact the grievance process?

A union would likely negotiate a contractual grievance process, but there is no guarantee that it would be different than or an improvement over the existing procedures set forth in the Rules and Procedures of the Professional Researchers and Professional Specialists of Princeton University. Also, a negotiated process would not apply to academic matters or to Title IX complaints (which must be adjudicated pursuant to a process governed by federal regulations). With or without a union, Princeton University is committed to continuing to work to foster an environment where there is open dialogue and transparency and where all employees feel comfortable using the grievance process when it is needed.

Current Union Representation and Potential Impact of Professional Researcher Unionization

Are there unions at Princeton?

Yes. At Princeton, six staff unions represent approximately 20% of our workforce, including public safety and security officers, cogeneration plant employees, library assistants, and hourly service employees in dining services and building services, among others.

Who would be in a union of postdoctoral researchers and scholars at Princeton if one were established?

The precise composition of the bargaining unit would not be defined until a labor union filed a petition seeking to represent certain employees at the University. Under federal labor law, members of a bargaining unit must have a clear and identifiable community of interest (e.g., similar occupations, geographic location, duties, payment structure, review/rating system, etc.). There are important differences between appointment ranks and classifications (e.g., between postdoctoral researchers and professional researchers, or between postdoctoral research fellows and postdoctoral research associates), and the union, the University, and/or the NLRB could find that these distinctions should be reflected in the composition of a bargaining unit.

If a union won an election at Princeton, would all postdoctoral researchers and scholars have to join it?

They would not have to “join” the union, but they would be represented by it and would likely be required to pay agency fees to the union even if they don’t join. Under federal law, you cannot be forced to join a union. However, a union can negotiate a provision in a collective bargaining agreement that requires nonmembers to pay an agency fee to the union in order to be able to perform their work. The agency fee is usually about the same amount as union dues. The terms of the contract are binding on all employees in the bargaining unit whether or not they join the union.

Are employees required to meet with a union organizer or admit a union organizer into their homes or offices?

No.

Does an individual’s immigration or visa status impact one’s ability to be included in the union?

No. The process for determining who is included in the bargaining unit applies to all employees regardless of their immigration status.

Would all members of the bargaining unit be represented by the union, even if they are not union members?

Yes. A union would represent every person in the bargaining unit, and the terms of any negotiated contract would be binding on all current and future employees included in the bargaining unit during the term of the contract.

If a union wins an election, will stipends and compensation increase?

Compensation for research positions represented by a union would be subject to bargaining, but there is no guarantee that the negotiations would result in an increase or cover the cost of dues or agency fees, which would be paid by members of the bargaining unit.

What would a union prevent postdoctoral researchers and scholars from doing?

A full answer to this question would depend on what is included in the labor contract, but an employee’s legal right to negotiate the terms and conditions of their own employment as an individual would change, and the union would become the agent of all employees in the bargaining unit with respect to these matters. Some individual arrangements made between faculty and researchers might be prohibited under the contract, depending on its terms.

If postdoctoral researchers and scholars unionize, can faculty supervisors continue to communicate directly with them in the same way they always have?

No. Communication and collaboration between faculty and researchers will always be encouraged, but there will be limitations on the topics that unionized researchers can discuss with the faculty members they support. Under federal labor law, faculty members would likely be deemed “supervisors” of postdoctoral researchers and scholars. Normal discourse that takes place between faculty and researchers with respect to their duties and responsibilities could be altered, as the union would be the exclusive bargaining agent for all issues related to the terms and conditions of their employment.

If a postdoctoral researcher or scholar currently serves on a sponsored research grant, how might unionization impact how funds under that grant are expended?

If a union negotiated certain wage or benefit levels for all postdoctoral researchers and scholars, the sponsored grant would be required to meet the wage and benefit levels, even if it could not support the contractual requirement.

What impact could a union have on off-site research activities (e.g., conference/workshop attendance, fieldwork or research conducted at other universities)?

We do not know at this time. To the extent such activities are part of your research appointment, funding for conferences, travel and other activities could be subject to negotiation with the union.

If there were a postdoctoral researchers and scholars union, could covered employees sit on departmental and school committees?

Probably so, but with some limitations. A union would be the exclusive voice to the University for all employees it represents on pay, work hours and other employment matters. Other avenues of communication between postdoctoral researchers and scholars and the University, such as departmental committees, might be restricted or limited with respect to these issues.

Many state universities have unions. Wouldn’t it be the same here?

Not necessarily. Comparisons to state universities are difficult for several reasons. The risks and rewards of pursuing a bargaining subject, acceding to a demand, demanding arbitration or engaging in a strike are much clearer for state universities because public sector labor law addresses these issues. For example, many states have written into their labor laws provisions that protect academic decisions of universities from the collective bargaining process. Thus, there are protections in the law that prevent unions from interfering in academic matters at public universities. Federal labor law (which would be applicable to collective bargaining in the context of private universities) has not been tailored to address the needs of higher education, and so these protections are not currently included in federal law.

What are the alternatives to unionizing?

Postdoctoral researchers and scholars matter at Princeton, and there are channels for your voices to be heard. Please visit the Princeton Postdoctoral Council website, or contact Karen Haskin, associate dean for academic affairs, or Tithi Basu Mallik, assistant dean for postdoctoral affairs, in the Office of the Dean of the Faculty. By taking full advantage of existing mechanisms and opportunities for input and potentially suggesting new ones, postdoctoral researchers and scholars can continue to help shape policies and programs at Princeton.

 

Updated Dec. 11, 2023

 


[1] The University does not, in these FAQs, express any position concerning which categories and/or ranks of research appointments may be appropriately included in any proposed bargaining unit.