Be Informed about Grad Student Worker Unionization at USC

Read our complete FAQ Here

USC has explicitly stated that it “does not believe unionization is in the best interest of our graduate students”. On 1-31, USC began releasing an FAQ that leaves out crucial information about what it means to form a union, and is clearly intended to dissuade grad student workers from voting “yes” in the upcoming union election. GSWOC-UAW believes it is absolutely critical that all grad students are fully informed as to what it means to form a union. The FAQ below is intended to supplement the full GSWOC-UAW FAQ by highlighting important information that USC does not provide. 

What USC says

What USC leaves out

What organization is seeking to unionize USC’s graduate students?

The name of the organization on the ballot will be “Graduate Student Organizing Committee-UAW.”  This is a subsidiary of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), better known as the United Auto Workers.

GSWOC-UAW stands for Grad Student Worker Organizing Committee-UAW. Grad students at USC reached out to UAW in 2020 to help us successfully form a union.

UAW is one of the most diverse unions in the United States, and in particular is the union of over 100,000 academic employees including Student Workers and Postdoctoral Researchers at Columbia University, Harvard Graduate Employees, University of California Academic Student Employees, Student Researchers, Postdocs, and Academic Researchers, and many more. In just this past year, Research Scientists and Engineers at UW voted 85% in favor of unionizing with UAW, Mt. Sinai Postdoctoral Researchers voted 89.5% in favor of unionizing with UAW, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute Grad Employees voted 96% in favor of unionizing with UAW.

Can international students vote in the election?

Yes. International students can vote in the secret ballot election. Like domestic students, they will be bound by the results.

International students have the same right to vote, join, and participate in unions as US citizens. You can read more about why international student workers support forming a union in the International Graduate Student Worker Committee’s OpEd and on our website.

How is the election decided?

The decision whether or not to unionize USC graduate students will be made by a simple majority of those who vote, even if that is only a fraction of those eligible to vote. The decision will bind all students in the proposed bargaining unit, regardless of whether they voted.  It is important that every eligible voter cast a vote so that the result is truly representative of their wishes.

It is critically important that there is high voter turnout. A strong “yes” vote will demonstrate to USC that grad student workers support being able to collectively bargain for improvements like better compensation, improved benefits, protections from harassment, discrimination, and abusive conduct, and more support and protections for international students.

Can you opt out of the union by not voting in the election?

No.  If you hold one of the positions in the proposed bargaining unit and the United Auto Workers are voted in, the union will become your exclusive bargaining representative regardless of how you voted.  The UAW would also be the exclusive bargaining representative for any future USC graduate students whose appointments fall into the bargaining unit, even though they did not have the opportunity to vote.

By voting to form a union, we gain the right to collectively bargain with USC. This is a highly democratic process that includes electing a bargaining team (made up of Grad Student Workers), collecting feedback through surveys, town halls, and more, drafting and voting on initial bargaining demands, exchanging proposals with USC at the bargaining table, and eventually voting on whether or not to ratify any proposed agreement before it goes into effect.

“Exclusive representation” means that all GSWs benefit from and are protected by the contract should GSWs vote to ratify it. It also means that USC is required to negotiate with our elected representatives and cannot instead make a “side deal” or ignore our union.

Union contracts are renegotiated, usually every 1 - 5 years. This means that future graduate student workers will also be able to bargain for further improvements through the process outlined above.

What happens if the United Auto Workers win the election? 

If a majority of voters vote “yes” – again even if it is only a fraction of eligible voters - all USC graduate students in the bargaining unit will be represented by the United Auto Workers as to their terms and conditions of “employment” by a local of the United Auto Workers. The University and the United Auto Workers would begin “collective bargaining” with the goal of seeking agreement by both sides on a contract.

We are voting to form our union, Grad Student Workers Organizing Committee-UAW, a union by, of, and for USC grad student workers. If we vote yes, we, as Grad Student Workers, will be able to negotiate with USC regarding our terms and conditions of employment. UAW provides help and technical assistance, but we, as GSWs, lead and run our union.

We chose to partner with UAW because of their track record of success, and because it is already the union for over 100,000 academic employees including Student Workers and Postdoctoral Researchers at Columbia University, Harvard Graduate Employees, University of California Academic Student Employees, Student Researchers, Postdocs, and Academic Researchers, and many more. In just this past year, Research Scientists and Engineers at UW voted 85% in favor of unionizing with UAW, Mt. Sinai Postdoctoral Researchers voted 89.5% in favor of unionizing with UAW, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute Grad Employees voted 96% in favor of unionizing with UAW.

What is collective bargaining?

“Collective bargaining” is a process by which a union and an employer negotiate the terms and conditions of employment, such as pay and benefits, for all members in the bargaining unit.  The union has the exclusive authority to bargain on behalf of all bargaining unit members, collectively, for pay, terms of appointment, benefits and other “working conditions.” Typically, there are a series of meetings where representatives of the two sides exchange written proposals for a contract.  Once this process begins, the University will be prohibited from directly negotiating terms and conditions with individuals who are in the unit.

Currently, USC has complete, unilateral control over all of our working conditions and we have no power to bargain. With a union, we engage in a democratic process to bargain an enforceable union contract with USC as equals.

During this process, USC cannot change working conditions without the agreement of GSWs. This means that USC cannot cut our benefits or wages unless we agree.

Who would actually negotiate a contract? 

Union representatives (typically, paid union employees) work with a small subset of union members, who are selected by the union, to sit at the bargaining table and negotiate on behalf of all members of the bargaining unit.

We elect our bargaining team, made up of Grad Student Workers, and they are empowered to make decisions and proposals at the bargaining table. All Grad Student Workers will have the opportunity to participate in bargaining - including by providing feedback on proposals and strategy. Experienced negotiators, who have helped other academic employees win union contracts, will also help us at the bargaining table. Before a contract goes into effect, all grad student workers will have the opportunity to vote on whether or not to ratify it.

If the United Auto Workers wins the election, will that affect next year’s compensation?

There is no way to know for certain how pay and benefits may be impacted.  As a result of good faith bargaining, compensation and benefits that graduate students currently enjoy could improve, diminish, or stay the same.  

Union negotiations can be long and complex and it can take months and sometimes years to reach an overall agreement.  We cannot predict how long good faith negotiations will take.

Every academic employee union we are aware of has been successful at winning higher wages, better benefits, and workplace protections. How long negotiations take, and what gains we are able to achieve, will largely depend on our collective power and participation. Grad Student Workers at other Universities have succeeded, and there is no reason to believe that we cannot succeed at USC as well.

Would a United Auto Workers-negotiated contract be better for USC graduate students? 
This is impossible to predict. Collective bargaining, by definition, is bargaining, and there is give and take.  Again, compensation and benefits that graduate students currently enjoy could improve, diminish, or stay the same.  

UCLA’s Teaching Assistants have been represented by the United Auto Workers since 1999 and the compensation finally achieved in their recent union contract, after a six-week strike, is no better than that already offered by USC. Students at three UC campuses overwhelmingly rejected the United Auto Workers-UC final agreement but will still be bound by it. When a contract is agreed upon by both sides, the contract is fixed in place, usually for years at a time, and must be adhered to even though conditions may change. 

Once again, every union of graduate student workers we are aware of has won substantial gains. While it’s true that no one can guarantee what will happen in contract negotiations, it is surely better than the status quo in which USC has full, unilateral control determining our working conditions. For example, USC has, in the past, frozen wages for GSWs for multiple years.

The recent UC contracts resulted in massive wage gains - between 25% and 80% over 2.5 years. They also won groundbreaking protections against abusive conduct, paid parental leave, and much more. Overall, UC student workers voted overwhelmingly in favor of ratification, but there were some that argued for UC students to vote “no” in order to remain on strike and attempt to achieve even greater gains. Nobody at UC believes that UC administration would have agreed to significant wage increases and new workplace protections without UC student workers having a union and being able to negotiate.

Do international students have a reason to vote? 

Absolutely. International students should vote because they will be impacted by the result of the election. USC already provides our international students with the resources and protections international students at other universities are seeking, including protections against bullying and harassment, equal treatment on tuition remission, plus dedicated offices and programs to serve the special needs of international students.

International students should absolutely vote. Protections and support at USC are currently insufficient, and many international students report facing bullying, discrimination, abusive conduct, and are threatened with unfair termination. Many of us have also found that OIS, in its current form, is insufficient to meet our needs. Forming a union is, if anything, even more important for international students.

If the United Auto Workers wins, can I still agree with my professor on special TA or RA arrangements to meet my personal situation?

If the United Auto Workers wins, some of the flexibility that we all enjoy here will become a matter of contract and rule, and there will be a third party between the University and its students. In a unionized environment, the union has the right to insert itself into the resolution of individual grievances, whether the individual wants the union there or not.

USC has long encouraged its graduate students to share their concerns directly as well as through their elected Graduate Student Government representatives, while the culture of our graduate school values close mentorship and individuated professional training. Unions tend to propose one-size-fits-all mandates, irrespective of the different needs of individual students, and the differences among academic fields and grant sources.

No other union of academic employees has negotiated a contract that limits graduate employees’ flexible working conditions - and it’s difficult to imagine that we, as Grad Student Workers, would ever vote to ratify a contract that does. In fact, if anything, academic unions have fought to expand workplace flexibility. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic unions at the UC campuses fought for the right of international employees to remain abroad and work remotely.

In the event an individual student has a problem in their workplace, with a union they can have far greater support. Other unions have negotiated the right to a formal grievance process that includes enforceable timelines, the ability to appeal to a neutral third party, and the right to have the support of a union representative throughout the process. This leads to far more favorable outcomes for grad student employees.

Does union membership cost money?

In a unionized environment, the union would undoubtedly demand a “union security” clause requiring all graduate students to pay dues and initiation fees as a condition of employment, as they must under the United Auto Workers contract at NYU. The union itself sets these costs without input from the employer or NLRB and usually seeks to have dues taken directly out of graduate students’ paychecks as a percentage of pay.

Union dues in UAW are determined democratically. They are currently 1.44% of gross pay and only go into effect after we negotiate and vote to ratify a union contract. In all other cases, the value of wage and benefit increases far exceeds the cost of union dues for all graduate employees. Dues are how workers, like us, pool resources to be able to successfully negotiate with multi-billion dollar employers, like USC.

It will also be up to us, as GSWs, to decide what kind of union security arrangement we want to negotiate for. Some institutions, like NYU, have a provision in their contract that generally requires all grad employees to pay dues or a comparable fee. Others, like Columbia and Harvard, do not have such a provision and dues are opt-in. You can read more about dues and how they are used here.

How does the new United Auto Workers-University of California contract compare with what USC graduate students already receive?

After a six week strike, the new United Auto Workers-UC contract is no better than the stipends and benefits USC already provides, and for many UC students the contract terms are less than what USC graduate students already receive.

President Folt recognizes the importance of competitive compensation in one of the country’s most expensive cities. As a result of the president’s “USC Competes” five- year initiative (now in its second year), USC stipends and benefits are among the best provided by any private research university. The initiative also includes fundraising for student support. The minimum USC pay for half-time work as RA/TA/AL approximates half the minimum pay for a full-time faculty member. And there is no deduction for union dues.

You can read details of what was won in the University of California contract here. Some highlights:

- 25% - 80% in wage increase over 2.5 years
- Dependent healthcare
- 8 weeks of paid parental leave
- Strong protections from abusive conduct, harassment, and bullying
- Strong protections from unfair termination
- And much more

Crucially, UC Grad Student Workers are also able to negotiate consistently every 1 - 5 years (the next round of contract negotiations will begin in 2 years). This ensures that wage increases and other improvements happen consistently, rather than the status quo at USC, where administration can (and has) frozen wages for years.

It is abundantly clear that grad student workers in the UC system are far, far better off than they were before forming a union - and they have expressed their support for us forming a union here at USC. It is incredibly misleading for USC to imply that grad students at UC are somehow worse off after winning massive raises, substantial improvements in benefits packages, and historic workplace protections.

If the United Auto Workers wins the election, will there be a strike?

We don’t know. But we do know that with a union, a strike is always a possibility. There would be no winners in a strike. Strikers aren’t paid. Student research doesn’t progress. Classes that TAs lead are interrupted. While the University would do what it reasonably could to avoid a strike, a strike is a very real possibility wherever the United Auto Workers represents graduate students. This occurred at NYU and with the recent strike in the UC system.

As GSWs, we may choose to go on strike if USC administration acts in bad faith or refuses to agree to a fair contract. Effective strikes require broad participation and support, and are generally planned well in advance. Since we are joining UAW, a strike must also be authorized by a 2/3rds vote.

No Graduate Student Worker can be compelled or forced to go on strike. The ability to engage in a protected strike can be a powerful form of leverage in union contract negotiations, however, and we view it as a tactic of last resort.

Additionally, one benefit of joining UAW is that if we do choose to go on strike, we will have access to UAW’s strike fund to ensure striking workers continue to receive pay (currently $400/wk) and benefits during a strike.

How will I know if the United Auto Workers is the right union to represent me?

We encourage everyone considering union representation to do their own research into the structure, leadership, and platform of the organization seeking to represent them to ensure it aligns with their personal values. It is worth noting that the United Auto Workers currently has a court-appointed monitor: https://www.nytimes. com/2022/07/31/business/uaw-autoworkers-union-corruption.html

GSWOC-UAW is by, of, and for Grad Student Workers at USC. We chose to partner with UAW because of their track record of success. Over 100,000 thousand academic employees are already part of UAW, with thousands more having joined just in the past year. Together, UAW members in higher education are driving up standards across the entire industry.

We also chose to join UAW because of how UAW members responded to the corruption of a few union officials by enacting democratic reforms and new accountability measures. We’re proud to be joining a union that enacted real reforms - like moving to direct elections for all union officers - rather than engaging in surface-level changes and cover-ups. You can read more here.

Fundamentally, UAW is a member-driven organization whose mission is to increase worker power. Decisions are made democratically through direct elections, referendums, and conferences - and as GSWOC-UAW, USC grad employees will directly elect the leaders of our own union. In contrast, we have zero say in who is in USC administration, or who is on the USC board of trustees.

Does a union help graduate students on academic issues?

If they win the election, the United Auto Workers will become the exclusive representative to bargain with the University on the terms and conditions of “employment” for graduate students in the bargaining unit, such as pay, work hours, health insurance, TA and RA appointments, and disciplinary procedures. Despite the fact the union is supposed to be limited to “employment” matters, at other universities the United Auto Workers has repeatedly --- and improperly --- attempted to insert itself into academic decision-making.

As Graduate Student Employees, we have dual roles both as students and as employees of USC. In union contract negotiations, mandatory topics of bargaining include our working conditions as employees like wages, benefits, and protections from harassment, discrimination, and abusive conduct. We can, however, choose to raise other issues that are important to us and push the University to agree to negotiate over them as well.

What happens if the United Auto Workers wins the election, but USC graduate students later decide they no longer want to be collectively represented by the United Auto Workers?

The process of ending representation by a union, called “decertification” is a complicated and difficult process. A union cannot be decertified for at least a year after it has been certified by the NLRB or while a contract is in effect, except during a 30-day window beginning 90 days before the end of the contract.

There is no shortage of right-wing organizations across the US that work to decertify labor unions. Nonetheless, workers choosing to decertify is rare and unions have high levels of support. No group of academic employees who joined UAW has ever sought to decertify. The overwhelming consensus is that by unionizing, academic employees have more rights and more power to democratically seek improved working conditions.