Another union debate has come to Northwestern – yes, another one. With the football team organizing in 2014 and adjunct faculty doing the same last summer, it’s like the ghost of César Chávez himself hangs over Northwestern. This group seeking unionization lives in limbo, neither just faculty nor just students but both: graduate students.

The push for unionization began in August in Washington D.C., when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled for the first time that graduate students at private universities could unionize. The plaintiffs in that fight, Columbia University students, voted to unionize in December, four months after the NLRB decision. At Northwestern, it’s been a bit more complicated.

After the decision, two labor organizations, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), began jockeying to represent Northwestern graduate students. Northwestern University Graduate Workers, a pro-union group of graduate students, held a debate between the two groups in October. Although leaders say that competition between two groups is common, it poses a problem. For the students to hold a vote for unionization, they need 30 percent of eligible workers to sign a union card. But both the AFT and the SEIU are handing out cards, and they don’t double count. If 25 percent of grad students sign cards with the AFT and 25 percent sign with the SEIU, neither would reach the 30 percent threshold, even though half of all students wanted to unionize. This could prevent the students from organizing, which would continue to leave them with little recourse for their grievances, which include:

  • Lack of full preventative health care benefits
  • Better compensation and work conditions
  • Lab hours for Ph.D. students in the sciences that can run into the early morning hours
  • Fair procedure for handling grievances between faculty and graduate students

Northwestern has said it treats grad students as students first and that unionizing would “significantly change the relationship between these students, their faculty mentors and the university.” You might recognize that language from the university’s response to the athlete labor fight. It didn’t work then. Time will tell if things will work out this time around.