Skip to main content

Frequently Asked Questions About Graduate Student Unionization

A labor union, the Communications Workers of America (CWA), has filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold an election to determine whether Graduate School of Arts and Sciences students who receive stipends and hourly pay from Fordham in exchange for performing duties want to be represented by the CWA. We encourage the members of our community to become educated on the issue and to discuss whether union representation is right for GSAS and its students. To facilitate this conversation, we have created this website to provide general information about union representation, the NLRB election process, and collective bargaining. We hope you find this information helpful, and from time to time Fordham may provide additional information on these topics.

Why are we hearing about unionization now? Why is the University providing this information?

On February 28, 2022, the CWA filed a petition with the NLRB seeking an election to determine whether all Graduate School of Arts and Sciences student employees who receive remuneration for duties (including hourly wages or stipends) from Fordham and/or GSAS, want to be represented by the CWA.  

Although the duties that graduate students perform have traditionally been seen as part of their training to prepare them for future careers, the NLRB ruled in a 2016 case involving Columbia University that graduate students engaged in paid assistantships were employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  As a result of this shift, graduate students became eligible to unionize and collectively bargain with their universities over the terms of these assistantships.

Following the most recent NLRB election involving Fordham instructors, we received feedback from some members of the community who felt the University’s relative silence deprived them of information they wished they had prior to the vote. For that reason, Fordham is sharing information about union representation and the upcoming election in this FAQ.

What is the University’s position on the unionization process?

The University fully recognizes the right of graduate students to form a union through the election process. Fordham also respects the right of each student to reach an informed, conscientious judgment about the matter. If the graduate students elect to be represented by the union, the University will respect that outcome and bargain in good faith with the union. 

Under what conditions would students be represented by the union?

Fordham recognizes graduate student assistants as students, first and foremost. From time to time, graduate students also are assigned duties, such as teaching or research, as part of their training toward a graduate degree. However, under NLRB rules, when a student receives compensation for performing such duties, the student is considered an employee who is eligible for union representation. In a semester or term in which the student is not being paid for duties, the student would not be eligible for union representation. 

How do union elections work?

Under NRLB rules, union representation is determined by a secret-ballot election. If a majority of those who vote choose union representation, all eligible voters (not just those who voted, and not just those who voted for a union) will be exclusively represented by the union in their dealings with Fordham concerning pay, benefits, and other “terms and conditions of employment.”    

How does a union work?

When a union represents a group of employees, the union is the exclusive representative for those employees with respect to their pay and working conditions. This means, for instance, that a graduate student assistant represented by a union would not be able to make individual arrangements with a department about teaching assignments, if those arrangements were inconsistent with a collective bargaining agreement. 

Does union representation cost money? How are dues calculated?

Unions charge their members dues in order to fund the various activities of the union. According to the Fordham Graduate Student Workers website, the union dues would be 2% of what students are paid. In New York, it is legal for a union to negotiate for a collective bargaining agreement that requires all members of the bargaining unit to either pay union dues or an agency service fee as a condition of remaining employed. 

Are there rules about students speaking to union organizers?  

Students are free (though not required) to speak with union organizers at any time they are not scheduled to be performing University work. As part of the NLRB election process, the University must provide students’ home address, email addresses, and phone numbers.  

Would status as an international graduate student impact eligibility to be included in the union?

No. The NLRA does not distinguish between U.S. citizens and non-citizens for purposes of determining eligibility to be included in a bargaining unit. 

If the graduate students elect to be represented by the union, will they receive larger stipends and better benefits?

If graduate students elect to be represented by the union, the union and employer are obligated to meet and confer in good faith.  The specific terms of employment (stipends, benefits, etc.) will be defined through these negotiations. 

If a union were formed, what would happen to graduate student assistants’ pay and benefits while the collective bargaining agreement is being negotiated?

Typically, there would be no changes in pay or benefits during negotiations apart from any that have been previously announced or planned for.  Any other changes are generally subject to bargaining. 

How are disputes resolved if there is a union contract?

Union contracts usually have grievance and arbitration provisions that call for resolving disputes through grievances brought internally and ultimately resolved through the binding decision of an outside arbitrator. 

May faculty express their views about unionization publicly, and discuss the union with students?

Yes, faculty may express their views, and provide facts, opinions and examples to support them. When making these expressions, faculty must not interfere with, restrain, or coerce the students in the exercise of their legal rights around union organizing. Because students may assume individual faculty members’ comments reflect the University’s views, faculty (and especially faculty in leadership positions) should make every effort to be clear they are speaking in their personal capacity, and not on behalf of the University, GSAS, Arts and Sciences, or their academic department.

Why did Fordham hire a law firm to assist in responding to the petition for election?

The NLRB election process is a specialized area of law. The University has engaged Jackson Lewis, a firm well-versed in this area of law, to offer advice as we navigate the process.