Frequently Asked Questions

General Questions

What is GSWOC - UAW?

We are an organization by, of, and for Graduate Student Workers (GSWs) who want to unionize in order to improve our teaching, research, and employment experience at USC. Our work as Teaching Assistants, Research Assistants, and Assistant Lecturers not only benefits the university and the California economy, but also has positive impacts worldwide. We work in many different fields and have varied experiences, but our dedication to teaching and research unites us all.

By forming a union, GSWs are democratizing our workplace. A union will give us more power to make improvements at work, allow us to bargain an enforceable contract with USC administration, and make the terms and conditions of our employment more transparent.

Forming a union with the United Auto Workers (UAW) in particular means joining over 100,000 higher education employees who are already part of UAW. Academic UAW unions include UC Academic Student Employees in UAW 2865, UC Postdocs and Academic Researchers in UAW 5810, Harvard student workers in HGSU-UAW 5118, and University of Washington Academic Student Employees and Postdocs in UAW 4121. With other academic unions across the country, we will have the political power to impact policy and funding decisions on the local, state, and federal levels.

Who are Grad Student Workers (GSWs)?

GSWs are graduate students who are employed by USC to do teaching or research. This includes anyone working as a Teaching Assistant, Assistant Lecturer, or Research Assistant.

Do Grad Student Workers have the right to unionize?

Yes. Under a 2016 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, GSWs are considered employees of USC and have the right to form a union and gain legal recognition under the National Labor Relations Act. Forming a union is a legally protected process that all USC GSWs have the right to participate in.

What is a union?

A union is an organized group of employees who work together to improve the working conditions of all through the power of collective bargaining.  Unions are democratic organizations that are by, of, and for the group of employees they represent (in our case, USC Graduate Student Workers).  By forming a union here at USC we gain the right to negotiate improvements and secure benefits in an enforceable contract with the university that cannot be unilaterally changed.  We also gain more power to influence other decisions that affect us: see for example how unionized academic workers played a role in helping reverse recent decisions targeting international student workers.

What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is a process, protected by federal law, that equalizes the power relationship between employees and their employer. It is easy for an employer to ignore an individual employee’s concerns, but when the employees come together to form a union, we have the collective strength to make ourselves heard. Forming a union will give us the right to collectively bargain with USC administration.

Under collective bargaining, USC Grad Student Workers (including TAs, ALs, and RAs) elect peer representatives to negotiate as equals with the USC administration. These negotiations result in a proposed contract called a tentative agreement which guarantees the terms and conditions of employment for GSWs. All GSWs will then be asked to vote to democratically approve the tentative agreement. If approved, the tentative agreement becomes a legally-binding contract.

Through collective bargaining, thousands of academic employees have successfully negotiated improvements in their wages, benefits, job security, leaves, protections against harassment and discrimination, and many other terms and conditions of their employment. Some examples are available on our website here.

Without collective bargaining, USC has unilateral power to change our working conditions. We cannot bargain as equals over stipends, health insurance, a fair grievance procedure for addressing harassment/discrimination or other isues, and more.

What improvements have Graduate Student Workers bargained for at other universities?

To name a few, Student Employees at other Universities have successfully negotiated higher wages, better benefits, protections from harassment, discrimination, and abusive conduct, protections from unfair termination, greater support for parents, greater support for international employees, and more transparent workplace policies. Critically, these improvements are part of a legally binding contract, which makes them enforceable and also ensures that policies that unionized student employees like are maintained.

You can read more about what improvements academic employees at other institutions have won on our webpage here.

What is the process of forming a union and bargaining a contract?

  1. Grad Student Workers (GSWs) form a diverse organizing committee to gather information and make a plan to form a union.
  2. A majority of all GSWs sign authorization cards indicating they would like to form a union (GSWOC – UAW).
  3. GSWs deliver their authorization cards to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) which oversees private sector employee unionization efforts. The NLRB requests a list of GSWs from USC to verify that all cards are valid and that 30% or more of all GSWs have signed.
  4. If NLRB finds that 30% or more of all GSWs have signed cards, then an election is triggered.
  5. GSWs vote to form a union and the NLRB certifies GSWOC – UAW! GSWs can begin bargaining with USC administration.
  6. GSWs elect a bargaining committee of their peers to represent them in collective bargaining with USC administration.
  7. GSWs fill out comprehensive bargaining surveys, hold discussions, request information from USC administration, and gather feedback to draft their initial bargaining priorities.
  8. Initial bargaining demands are sent to all GSWs for review, and GSWs vote on whether or not to approve them.
  9. The bargaining committee negotiates as equals with USC administration and provides regular updates to all GSWs.
  10. Once a tentative agreement is reached at the bargaining table, all GSWs vote on whether or not to ratify the agreement.

Why are Grad Student Workers choosing to join UAW?

UAW is the International Union of United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW). UAW has historically been one of the largest and most diverse unions in North America. In recent decades, 100,000 employees in higher education have joined, making UAW the single largest union of higher ed academic employees in the US. Academic employees from the University of California, Harvard, UConn, Columbia, University of Washington, and many more have found that joining UAW has allowed them to democratically determine priorities as a workforce and dramatically increase power to win improved rights and benefits through collective bargaining.

We reached out to UAW to help us successfully form a union at USC because it has expertise in bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act (the law which makes it possible to collectively bargain at private universities) and their track record of success. Additionally, academic employees at UC, including nearby UCLA, UC Irvine, and UC Riverside, are members of UAW 2865 and UAW 5810. We hope that by working together we can have a greater impact both at institutions of higher education and in society more generally.

Will I have to pay dues?

Membership dues are important because they provide the resources necessary for effective representation.  As part of the UAW, we would not pay dues until we have gone through the bargaining process and voted democratically to approve our first contract. Dues are critical for providing us with independent resources that are not controlled by the University: we use them to ensure we have appropriate legal, bargaining, community and staff support to represent all Grad Student Workers. UAW membership dues are currently 1.44% of gross monthly income and can only be increased by membership action (the membership in a few local unions, for example, have voted to increase dues above 1.44% to have more resources).

No one can be required to become a member of the Union after we have a contract. In most contracts, since everyone in the bargaining unit must receive all of the benefits of the contract, non-members are generally required to pay a comparable “fair share” fee, so the cost of representation is shared equally. The inclusion of a similar provision at USC would be something we decide as part of our bargaining agenda, would be subject to negotiation with USC administration, and contingent on ratification as part of our contract.

Many academic worker unions have such a provision in the contract because it means we have more power and more resources available to enforce our rights under our contract, campaign for the best possible future contracts, and help other academic workers form their own unions. Under the UAW, there is also a one-time initiation fee, which ranges from $10 to $50 and is determined democratically in local union bylaws approved by members.

The value of increased wages and benefits in the first contract typically outweighs the cost of dues, often leading to overwhelming majority approval of those agreements. For example, Grad Student Workers at Columbia won a minimum of a 6% increase for an after-dues minimum 12-month salary of $43,100 for the 2021/2022 academic year, plus guaranteed salary increases in subsequent years.

How is dues money allocated? What are dues used for?

Dues in UAW are 1.44% of gross income and no Grad Student Worker (GSW) will pay dues until after a contract has been democratically ratified. There is also a union initiation fee, which is $10 one-time. Union members, including USC GSWs, democratically decide how union dues are spent. 

Local union expenses throughout the year are approved by a democratically-elected Executive Board of GSWs. Typically local unions also draft and approve a budget at the start of each year. Elected trustees also audit the union’s income and expenditures twice annually.

Most of the work of enforcing the contract and representing membership is financially supported by the Local Union. The Local Union receives 27% of its dues to support the following:

  • Educating new employees about their rights and the union
  • Contract negotiations
  • Advising members in difficult situations and supporting them through contract enforcement grievances
  • Events, including educational seminars on topics like visa and immigration rights, healthcare, and taxes
  • Advocacy for public policy that supports research and researchers

The local union may also receive an additional “rebate” if the Strike and Defense fund is over $500M. To get a sense of how local union dues are used in practice, we recommend reading  “Dues in Action” from the Union of Academic Student Employees and Postdocs at UW

Another 26% of dues goes to the International Union’s General Fund, which provides technical support for contract negotiations and helps other workers successfully form unions (including GSWOC – UAW). The remaining dues are allocated to the Strike and Defense Fund (44%) and Community Action Program (3%). Depending on the overall financial health of the Strike and Defense Fund (if the balance is $500M or greater), an additional allocation of dues called a “rebate” is given back to the Local and International Union. 

Some of the ways International Union dues will support USC GSWs include:

  • Providing experienced negotiators, researchers, and legal help to aid USC GSWs in achieving their goals at the bargaining table
  • Legal advice and advocacy to impact policy makers, especially those in Washington, DC. For example, in 2020 UAW joined an amicus brief that helped stop the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office from imposing a rule that would have prevented International Students from being enrolled in U.S. Universities that had switched to primarily remote learning.
  • Guidance on grievance and arbitrations. For example, UAW International aided UC Berkeley Teaching Assistants in winning millions of dollars in unpaid tuition remission.
  • Helping to win political support for our priorities as GSWs. See, for example, this letter to UC from Katie Porter and 29 other members of the California Congressional Delegation calling on UC to recognize the newly formed UC Student Researcher union.

In addition, dues help support new organizing campaigns. For example, the organizing staff and legal support for the GSWOC – UAW campaign is paid by current UAW members’ dues. Also, union dues have gone towards legal and organizing resources that have have been key to major victories for academic workers including:

  • the landmark NLRB decision extending collective bargaining rights to Graduate Employees at private universities such as USC, as well as the organizing resources that led to the subsequent representation election victory of Columbia University Graduate Employees.
  • the passage of California law SB 201, which was the culmination of a decades-long fight to extend collective bargaining rights to Student Researchers at UC.

A portion of dues money also goes to support political action, including legislative and other policy advocacy on issues that matter to UAW members. For example, UAW advocates strongly for fair, comprehensive immigration reform, which would include more visa access and an improved green card process, and expanded federal support for research funding, among other topics. [NOTE: Legally, dues money cannot be used for federal campaign contributions, such as the presidential race—that money comes from members’ voluntary contributions separate from, and in addition to, dues, in a program called VCAP (Voluntary Community Action Program)].

Is UAW a corrupt organization?

In 2020, GSWOC voted to unionize through UAW because the significant reform efforts in the union had produced a highly dynamic, growth oriented institution. These reform efforts are the result of regular union members who wanted a democratic union with accountable leadership. In 2018, a whistleblower reported a scheme by a group of UAW officials to misuse union funds. The resulting investigation led to 14 UAW officials being charged with corruption and pleading guilty. Their actions are appalling, highly unusual, and go against the fundamental values that UAW has upheld for over 80 years. All of the former leaders were stripped of their leadership positions and stripped of their UAW membership. All funds lost as a result of these individuals’ actions were recovered.

UAW, driven by 400,000 active members, has since taken steps to reform and ensure that this never happens again:

  • UAW members voted in favor of a referendum to move to a “one member, one vote” system for electing high-ranking UAW officials. This provides all UAW members with a direct say in who is leading UAW at every level.
  • UAW agreed to federal oversight to root out any additional corrupt officials and to implement further reforms to safeguard against future corruption and strengthen member participation and democracy. 
  • Established a third-party, confidential ethics hotline and hired outside experts to analyze and improve accounting and financial controls

We reached out to UAW in 2020 in part because it is a highly diverse union committed to democracy and member participation. We’re excited to be joining in democratic decision making alongside 400,000 existing UAW members, over 100,000 of which are in higher education. This includes Student Workers and Postdoctoral Researchers at Columbia University, Harvard Graduate Employees, University of Washington Academic Student Employees and Postdocs, NYU Graduate Employees and Adjunct Faculty, University of Connecticut Graduate Employees and Postdocs, University of California Academic Student Employees, Student Researchers, Postdocs, and Academic Researchers, and 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. And at other Universities, like Caltech, additional academic employees are also working toward joining UAW. Together we are part of a movement to improve higher education.

Unlike USC, UAW is a democratic institution whose mission is to increase worker power. While USC spends thousands on union-busting consultants, UAW invests in organizing, providing GSWOC with the tools and guidance necessary to successfully form a union.

What specific improvements will a union make?

As Grad Student Workers (GSWs), we will democratically decide what to prioritize in contract negotiations. We are beginning this process already with the preliminary bargaining survey included with union authorization cards, and will continue soliciting feedback through comprehensive surveys made available to all GSWs, town hall meetings, and more. Before even going to the bargaining table, all GSWs will be able to participate in democratically electing a bargaining team and ratifying initial bargaining demands.

At the bargaining table, other unionized student employees have won improvements like higher wages, protections from harassment, discrimination, and abusive conduct, protections from unfair termination, more transparent workplace policies, and more. Critically, these improvements are part of an enforceable contract, which makes them enforceable and also ensures that policies that unionized student employees like are maintained.

You can read more about what other academic employees have won through unionizing here.

If there are specific improvements you are interested in seeing, or things you like about working at USC and would like to see preserved, please feel welcome to include your thoughts on the preliminary bargaining survey or please contact us.

International Students

What difference does unionization make for International Students?

Forming a Union is one of the most important things we can do to ensure that all International Students are successful. International students can face multiple unique challenges: misinformation and uncertainty about rules and regulations, an unwelcoming political environment, and challenging working conditions. By unionizing we will be able to bargain for improvements that become part of an enforceable contract. We will also create a community so we don’t have to face problems alone and gain a stronger voice at USC and in the national landscape. 

You can read more about how international students already participate in unions throughout the US on our international student page.

What are the rights of International Student Employees to join the union?

Under US law, graduate student employees doing teaching or research work at USC are employees regardless of citizenship status. This means we have the legal right to form unions and bargain with the University as equals. In fact, tens of thousands of International Students are already members of academic unions like UAW 2865, the Union of TAs, Tutors, and Readers at UC, UAW 4121, the Union of Academic Student Employees and Postdocs at University of Washington, and HGSU-UAW 5118, the Harvard Graduate Students Union.

Graduate employees have formed unions and bargained contracts at many schools, and graduate employee unions have existed for almost 40 years. No unionized academic employee has ever reported any complications arising from being both an international student and a unionized employee. It is against the law for your employer (USC) to discriminate against you on the basis of your union membership or participation in legal union activities.

Are there any restrictions on political activity by foreign students?

All international 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.

However, students on visas are prohibited from making financial donations to political candidates and political parties under federal law. That said, many international students contribute by volunteering time. For example, international students have joined for canvassing, phonebanking, and meetings with elected officials.

Will signing a union card affect visa or permanent residency applications that I may make in the future?

All international student employees have the same right to join and participate in unions as US permanent residents and citizens. Out of tens of thousands of international students, Postdocs, and researchers that are part of UAW, there has never been any reported instances of participation in a union negatively impacting visa or permanent residency applications.

Potential Impacts

Why a union instead of a university affiliated advocacy organization?

Only a union with collective bargaining rights has the power to negotiate a binding, enforceable contract with an employer as equals. Many Graduate Students involved in GSWOC – UAW also belong to other advocacy organizations and believe those groups do, and will continue to do, very important work. However, only by forming a union can we collectively bargain an enforceable contract over the terms and conditions of our work as employees of USC.

If you are part of another advocacy organization and have questions, feedback, or would like to discuss how we can work together for a better USC, please do not hesitate to contact us!

What does “exclusive representation” mean?

Exclusive representation means that the union Grad Student Workers are forming, GSWOC – UAW, is the union for all USC GSWs. If the union is formed, GSWs will be able to elect a bargaining team (made up of GSWs) to negotiate with USC administration and reach a tentative agreement. Without exclusive representation, USC administrators could undermine the bargaining process by negotiating with an organization other than the democratically elected bargaining team chosen by GSWs.

Will a union limit supervisors’ ability to provide additional wage increases?

With a union, Grad Student Workers (GSWs) will decide what kinds of salary protections and/or increases to bargain for. For example, in the case of UAW 4121 (the Union of Academic Student Employees and Postdocs at UW), the contract sets a base rate for Research Assistants, and departments are free to set wages at a higher rate. For UAW 5810, the contract for Postdocs at UC sets minimum salary levels and explicitly states that “nothing shall preclude the University from providing compensation to Postdoctoral Scholars at rates above those required.” 

No union for academic employees has bargained a contract that requires all union members to make the same amount.

Will forming a union cause USC to reduce benefits or lower pay?

No. On the contrary, once a union is formed, USC cannot unilaterally alter any terms and conditions of employment—including pay and benefits. Instead, changes to terms and conditions of employment are subject to collective bargaining, through which we, as Graduate Student Workers, will have the power to negotiate with USC administrators as equals and democratically approve an enforceable contract.

Will forming a union limit Grad Student Workers’ ability to work flexible hours?

We do not know of any cases of academic employees choosing to reduce flexibility in their workplace via union contract negotiations. On the contrary, at the University of California, University of Washington, and other institutions academic employees (including Teaching and Research Assistants) have used their union contracts to prevent administrators from imposing more restrictive policies (like timesheets or limiting remote work).

By  forming a union, GSWs will elect a bargaining team of GSWs and choose what improvements we want to make, and what current policies at USC we want to preserve. We will also all have the opportunity to vote on whether or not to ratify a contract.

Won’t jobs go away if Grad Student Workers get raises?

Crucial to successfully bargaining a contract will be developing thoughtful bargaining proposals and assessing their impact through research and requesting information from USC administration. All bargaining decisions will be made by GSWs, including what proposals to make in bargaining, and whether to approve any proposed contract.

Other unions of academic employees have successfully won wage increases without leading to a decrease in the number of available jobs. As an example, unionized Postdocs at the University of California have won 45% in wage increases since 2010, while over the same span the number of Postdocs employed by the University of California has increased from around 5,800 to 7,000. UC Postdocs have also continuously campaigned for increases in Federal research funding, the primary source of funding for their positions. 

Finally, GSWs have more power to protect jobs through collective action and the protections of an enforceable contract. Most collective bargaining agreements prohibit the employer from terminating positions due to arbitrary or discriminatory reasons, or to take action inconsistent with job offers accepted by the employee. Through unionizing GSWs be able to act collectively to preserve our positions with the backing of other unionized academic employees and the larger UAW International Union.

Will forming a union limit GSWs’ direct relationship with advisors?

As a union, we will be negotiating with the USC administration, not with our advisors, PIs, and supervisors, because it is the policies of the University that define the conditions of our employment. We should not expect that our day-to-day interaction with faculty supervisors will change significantly, except that we will have more transparency in expectations and enforceable protections should something go awry.

Research has shown that when graduate employees unionize, the relationship between advisors and students is not negatively impacted. In fact, it may lead to more positive relationships because a union contract can clarify policies around wages, vacation, sick days, holidays, etc.

Will having a union mean I’m only allowed to work a certain number of hours?

We, as Grad Student Workers, will democratically decide on the terms of employment that most benefit our ability to perform teaching and research at a high level. Recent contracts negotiated by other UAW academic unions have emphasized protections against excessive workload while allowing flexibility to allow for maximal productivity. For example:

  • The contract for Graduate Teaching and Research Assistants at the University of Washington protects against excessive workload by setting an hourly limit to the amount of work that may be assigned, but allows work assignments for Research Assistants to exceed their hourly limit if that work contributes to their dissertation project.
  • UC Postdocs chose not to bargain for an hourly limit to their workload. Instead, the contract for Postdocs at UC protects against excessive, unnecessary workload by stating “work schedules must be reasonable, and related to research needs.”

It will be up to us to democratically decide what will work at USC, fully taking into consideration the many contexts in which we all work.

I heard that after we file for a union, USC will be required to maintain a “status-quo” or “sterile conditions.” What does that mean?

Before a union election and during contract negotiations, USC administration is required to maintain a dynamic status-quo. This is an important protection for Grad Student Workers. It means that USC cannot make certain unilateral changes to GSW working conditions, unless that change is a planned, recurring event. For example, USC administration could not reduce our health care benefits after we file for a union unless GSWs agree to such a reduction. This is one of many ways that Federal Law requires employers, like USC, to bargain in good faith.

Forming a union provides GSWs with a powerful voice in determining our working conditions. Before, during, and after contract negotiations USC administration and GSWs can meet to discuss changes that either party wishes to make.

What happens if Grad Student Workers vote down a contract?

If GSWs do not ratify the tentative agreement reached between their elected bargaining team and USC administration, then the bargaining team will return to the negotiating table. Contract ratification is often the subject of rigorous democratic discussion, with “vote yes” and “vote no” campaigns making the case for or against ratification. During negotiations themselves, the elected bargaining team is expected to continuously communicate with and collect feedback from all GSWs. Likewise, participation in the process from all GSWs is essential to successful contract negotiations.

Will Grad Student Workers have to go on strike?

As GSWs, we may decide 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.

Many union contracts have been successfully negotiated without resorting to a strike. For example, UC Postdocs and UC Academic Researchers (UAW 5810) both negotiated strong contracts without striking, but were prepared to strike if necessary.

In other cases, student employees have chosen to go on strike in response to stalled contract negotiations or their employer acting in bad faith. In April 2018, Columbia student workers (GWC-UAW 2110) voted to go on a recognition strike when the university illegally refused to bargain with their union, and voted again to go on strike in March 2021 for a fair contract. In December 2019, 90.4% of Harvard student workers (HGSU-UAW 5118) voted to authorize a strike, and then went on strike for recognition from the university. In Spring 2021, 96% of student workers at NYU (GSOC-UAW 2110) voted to go on strike for a fair contract.