PhD Student Unionization

As national conversations take place about graduate student unionization, we encourage Emory PhD students to educate themselves on the issue by seeking out, examining, and balancing information and perspectives, particularly as decisions to unionize affect both current and future generations of PhD students.

To help facilitate the discussion, we are sharing general information and answers to some commonly asked questions about unions, including information about bargaining units, the election process, collective bargaining, and more.

  • You can read more about the Collective Bargaining here.
  • You can read more about the Grievance Procedures here.
  • You can read more about Student Stipends here.
  • You can read more about Student Health and Well-Being here.
  • For examples of Collective Bargaining Agreements at other universities at which SEIU was elected to represent graduate students, see below:

At Emory, we deeply value the ability to work with students and student organizations to create a student-centered educational experience. We are committed to open expression of ideas and to providing information and resources to help students flourish. We honor and respect our students’ right to engage in dialogue about union representation and will continue to encourage members of our community to learn more about this important issue.

General Information about Unions


A union is an organized association of workers, usually in a particular trade, formed to negotiate with employers over matters related to wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.

Unions are businesses, funded primarily by their members through membership dues and initiation fees. Each union establishes its own dues formula. For example, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)’s dues are generally calculated based on a percentage of stipend payments, typically between 1.5% to 2.5% of the stipend amount. These dues are usually taken directly out of members’ stipend checks.

Georgia has a “right-to-work” law, which means individuals represented by a union cannot be forced to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of continued employment. Represented individuals who do not join the union or pay dues are, however, still exclusively represented by the union and would have to abide by the terms contained in any collective bargaining agreement.  Students who are not members of the union cannot deal directly with Emory or LGS about matters related to the bargaining agreement, and they are bound by the terms contained in any collective bargaining agreement.

From a legal perspective, there is a fundamental difference between state and private universities. State universities are subject to state labor laws, whereas Emory, as a private university, is subject to federal labor laws and the National Labor Relations Act.

Many states have provisions in their labor laws that exclude academic decisions from the collective bargaining process. Thus, there are protections in the applicable state laws that prevent unions from becoming involved in academic matters at public universities. Federal labor law has not been tailored to address the needs of higher education, so these protections are not currently included in federal law. A PhD student union at Emory risks blurring the lines between academic and other decisions. Disagreements between PhD students at other universities have led to significant labor disputes such as strikes or lockouts.

There are also differences in the types of roles PhD students serve in public and private universities. At public universities, the compensation PhD students receive for teaching and research is often tied directly to the cost of educating undergraduates. At private universities such as Emory, teaching and research is part of a PhD student’s training and professional development. Stipend support for PhD students at LGS remains constant throughout their time in the program, as long as they remain in good academic standing.  

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is an international labor union that represents more than 1.8 million members. Individual employees are often directly represented by a local union, which is an organization affiliated with a larger national union, such as SEIU. According to filings with the Department of Labor, the SEIU collected more than $320 million in cash receipts in 2021. The SEIU has traditionally represented employees in healthcare, public services, and property services. More recently, the SEIU has targeted PhD student programs with union organizing drives, which would increase their membership. Though SEIU has initiated union organizing campaigns at universities over the past few years, PhD students at a number of universities remain unrepresented and/or do not have a collective bargaining agreement.    

Process of Forming a Union


There are several steps to forming a union.

  • Typically, it begins with the collection of authorization cards from potential members of a bargaining unit.
  • Once the union has received authorization cards from at least 30% of individuals in a potential bargaining unit, they file a Representation Petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
  • The NLRB will investigate and determine whether an election is warranted.
  • If the NLRB determines that there is an appropriate bargaining unit of PhD students, the NLRB would manage an election at Emory, and PhD students in the proposed bargaining unit would vote.

More details about each step in the process are shared below.

Step 1: Authorization Cards


Authorization cards are written declarations, akin to a power of attorney, signed by potential members of a bargaining unit.

The union authorization card from EmoryUnite! (i.e., the union) requests two signatures from students. First, the authorization cards asks that the signor authorize the union to be their exclusive representative for the purposes of collective bargaining. Additionally, the union’s card also asks that students authorize payroll deductions from Emory to be used to pay for union dues.

No. If the union is elected, the method by which dues are collected from members will be up for negotiation and Emory would need to agree to facilitate these payroll deductions. However, if the parties were to agree, your signed authorization card may authorize these dues deductions and such authorization could only be revoked pursuant to the union’s process as described on the authorization card.

Typically, unions collect authorization cards as part of an organizing drive — that is, 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 for an established bargaining unit. The union must present cards from at least 30% of the proposed bargaining unit to the NLRB to seek an election.

Usually not. An individual cannot effectively revoke a card once it has been used as part of the union’s showing of interest to the NLRB. That said, each eligible voter is always free to vote however they want in the secret ballot election, even if they previously signed an authorization card.

Step 2: Representation Petition

A petition is a formal request addressed to the NLRB to determine by secret ballot election whether a majority of individuals in a bargaining unit wish to be represented by a particular labor organization for the purposes of collective bargaining. When submitting a petition, a union must show that at least 30% of the individuals in the designated bargaining unit want the union to be their bargaining agent. As a factual matter, unions usually want much more than 30% before they file a petition, anticipating that support will fall off as an election approaches. Whether a 30% showing of interest has been demonstrated is an administrative determination made by the NLRB's Regional Director. The NLRB regional office with jurisdiction in this matter is in Atlanta.

After receiving the petition, the NLRB Regional Director typically assigns an agent to the case and a preliminary investigation is started. The Board will attempt to get the parties to stipulate to an election.

If the parties do not stipulate to an election, an NLRB hearing officer conducts a formal representation hearing. After gathering all the relevant information, including witness testimony and documentary evidence, the hearing officer refers, without recommendation, the full record of the case to the NLRB Regional Director. The Regional Director then reviews the case and can decide to dismiss the petition or to order an election if a bargaining unit is determined to be appropriate.

Step 3: Elections


A secret-ballot election will be conducted and supervised by representatives of the NLRB.  The election will be conducted in part in-person and in part by mail.

The majority of students will have a chance to vote in person at a polling place on Emory’s campus on October 17, 2023, and October 18, 2023.  More information on your polling place will be shared shortly.

Students who are performing instructional or research services outside the Atlanta Metropolitan area are eligible to vote by mail and will be sent a ballot by Region 10 of the National Labor Relations Board.

Yes, absolutely! The outcome of an election would be decided by a simple majority of votes cast. For example, if only 100 out of 500 eligible students vote, 51 voters would determine the outcome for all 500 students in the bargaining unit, as well as future students. It is important to note that the NLRB has adopted the principle that voters who do not participate in the election assent to the will of the majority of those voting. For example, in an election at Loyola University Chicago, only 120 out of 210 eligible graduate assistants voted, with 71 voting for the union and 49 voting against it. In other words, only 34% of eligible students determined the outcome of the vote for all 210 students.

Yes. An NLRB election would permit PhD students to cast their ballots in secret, exercising their free choice in an environment free from pressure or coercion. The election would be conducted according to well-established rules that regulate the conduct of both the University and the union. The NLRB would decide who is eligible to vote, the scope of the potential bargaining unit, and any other issues that affect the election.

No. Bargaining does not occur until after the union has won the election and has been certified by the NLRB. The union’s agenda for bargaining is typically determined by union leadership in consultation with its members. The National Labor Relations Act requires employers and unions to bargain collectively and in good faith with respect to “wages, hours, and other terms of employment,” which are broad concepts.

Students eligible to vote in the election are individuals who were employed in a unit position in the Fall 2023 semester, unless the person has graduated from or withdrawn from the program on the day on which they cast their vote.   Every eligible person should vote because the election outcome is determined by the majority of those who vote, not a majority of those eligible to vote. Thus, union representation for non-voters will be decided by those who vote, and no one can opt out of the process or its outcome.

No. The results of any election would bind everyone in the bargaining unit, including students who do not vote, students who vote “no,” and future students who will not have a chance to vote.

If you have a question about receiving a mail ballot, please contact the Region 10 office by 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 19, 2023, in order to arrange for a mail ballot kit.  You may contact the NLRB Region 10 Atlanta Regional Office at (404) 331-2896, or 1-844-762-NLRB, or visit the NLRB website for assistance.

Election Results

Yes, but not right away. There is generally 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 later.

Union elections are not like political elections. Voters do not have the opportunity to determine their representatives at scheduled intervals with term limits. Once a union is in place and certified as the exclusive representative of a bargaining unit, it remains so indefinitely and will represent all students who matriculate in the future unless a decertification petition is filed.

Maybe. Because a labor union represents students only in their capacity as teaching or research assistants, students could enter the bargaining unit and be subject to union representation when serving as teaching or research assistants, but exit the bargaining unit and no longer be subject to union representation when not serving as a TA or RA.

Yes, but the process to remove or decertify a union is complex and can sometimes take years to complete. It is much easier to establish a union than to remove it.

About Bargaining Units


In an employment setting, a “bargaining unit” is a group of employees who have common terms and conditions of employment that the union seeks to organize as one group. A union negotiates on behalf of the bargaining unit to establish collective terms and conditions of employment, such as salary and benefits. Bargaining units can be small, representing a sub-section or smaller group of employees, or they can be large.

Yes, but this doesn't occur frequently. If the union and the employer agree to change the bargaining unit, then it can be changed. The bargaining unit can also change if either the union or the employer files a “unit clarification petition,” which is a formal request that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) revise the parameters of the certified bargaining unit. Unless otherwise agreed to by the parties, the union initially proposes a bargaining unit when it files an election petition with the NLRB, and the NLRB ultimately decides the appropriate bargaining unit, which is important in determining who is eligible to vote.

Collective Bargaining


Representatives of both the University and the union would sit at the bargaining table. On the University's side, labor relations professionals, administrators, and faculty members would likely participate. On the other side, the union would pick its own bargaining team, which might include PhD student leaders, members, and staff, together with representatives of the union itself.

The National Labor Relations Act requires employers and unions to bargain collectively and in good faith with respect to “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment” — concepts that the NLRB and federal courts have interpreted broadly. Because the NLRB and the federal courts have little experience in analyzing what are “terms and conditions of employment” for PhD students whose teaching and research are part of their graduate training, it is possible that disagreements over what is “bargainable” or not in the context of higher education will result in litigation.

 As of September 14, 2023, SEIU has negotiated three known collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) for graduate students.  The CBAs outline the terms and conditions of the relationship between the members of the bargaining unit and the university. Click each school to see the CBAs for graduate students at American University, Brandeis University, and Tufts University. Students are encouraged to examine these CBAs carefully to understand the types of terms SEIU has negotiated on behalf of graduate students  over the past few years.   

Note, however, that in reviewing the CBAs, some differences exist between the laws of the states in which these contracts were negotiated and the law in Georgia. Specifically, because Georgia is a “Right to Work” state, the Union cannot require Emory to “terminate” students who do not join the union or pay dues.  In addition, other schools at which the SEIU has won an election, such as Duke, do not yet have a Collective Bargaining Agreement in place.

That is unknown. Emory will bargain in good faith with the SEIU if they are elected to represent Laney students.  However, negotiating a collective bargaining agreement is a lengthy process.  At some universities, such as the University of California, negotiations lasted for more than nine months while at Columbia, it took four years to reach an agreement. On average, it takes over a year to negotiate the first collective bargaining agreement.

That is unknown. Indeed, all outcomes of bargaining are unknown. While supporters of PhD student unions might believe that current stipend levels, benefits, etc. will only improve through collective bargaining, there is no guarantee that will be the case. It is important to note that the law does not require either a union or management to agree to any contract proposal.

The stipend may increase as a result of negotiations, but there is no guarantee.  For instance, other graduate student unions who are also affiliated with SEIU are receiving stipends below Emory’s. For instance, SEIU-affiliated graduate students at American University are receiving a minimum stipend of $25,000. The stipend amounts for SEIU-affiliated graduate students at Tufts University change depending on a student’s program but, at the high end, some students are receiving minimum stipends of $27,560 based on a nine-month appointment. Click each school to see the full provisions covering stipends negotiated by the SEIU at American, Tufts, and Brandeis.

Current benefits offered to LGS PhD students include the annual stipend, 100% paid health insurance subsidy, tuition (valued at $23,400 per academic semester in Academic Year 2023-2024), professional development funds, and access to a variety of programs and services offered by LGS.

The average of the four LGS stipends increased by 49% over the last ten years. During the same period, the cumulative inflation rate was 31%. In 2013, LGS transitioned to a 12-month stipend so that students could focus on their education and training throughout the entire year.

Just this past year, the Laney Graduate School increased minimum doctoral stipends by 6% starting this fall 2023. This decision increased minimum stipends from $34,316 to $36,376.

You can view a graph that illustrates this growth from 1989-2024 academic years here.

Student access to Emory programs that help students in crisis, including Laney Graduate School Emergency Loans, the Emory University Student Hardship Fund, and additional financial resources for students would not change.

If a union is established, any changes to financial policies would require bargaining.  For example, in the Summer of 2022 when the cost of living was rising precipitously in Atlanta, LGS was able to approve and pay one-time $500 payments to students enrolled in the summer to help with immediate needs and then approved a stipend increase of 8% (instead of the planned 3% increase) for academic year 2022-2023. Emory would no longer be able to implement these payments without bargaining with the union.  

Yes. The union represents all PhD students in the bargaining unit. The provisions in the contract it negotiates apply to all unit members.

Not generally. Collective bargaining agreements focus on PhD students as a collective group predominantly over any individual student and his/her/their needs.

These questions and answers reflect multiple sources of information, including information from government websites and information shared by or publicly available at other institutions. All information has been reviewed by Emory University's Office of the General Counsel.