PhD Student Unionization

On November 28, 2023, a ballot counting determined a majority of eligible Emory PhD students voted in favor of being represented by Workers United-SEIU, with a total of 909 ballots cast in favor of unionization and 73 against. The voter turnout was approximately 60 percent of eligible PhD students. The election was certified by the NLRB on December 6.

Emory acknowledges and respects the outcome of the vote, and we are committed to engaging in good faith bargaining with the Union as the representative of the PhD students, in line with our mission, vision, and values.

You can learn more about the SEIU here.

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.

Certification refers to the NLRB process that officially recognizes the results of an election. After an election concludes, the Board will evaluate whether there are any outstanding determinative challenges (i.e., more challenged votes than the difference between Yes and No votes) or objections to the election from either party and, if not, will certify the election results. If the union wins the election, the union, upon certification, will be officially recognized by the NLRB as the exclusive bargaining representative of a group of employees.

Unions are organizations, funded exclusively by their members through membership dues and initiation fees. The Union has determined that students will pay 1.5% of their gross pay towards dues, with a maximum of $11.53 per week or $50 per month.

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. 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. Currently, 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.

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 proposed a bargaining unit when it filed its election petition with the NLRB, and the NLRB certifies an appropriate bargaining unit.

Collective Bargaining


Collective bargaining is the process by which a union and an employer negotiate the terms and conditions of employment, including pay, benefits, and working hours for all members of the bargaining unit. Collective bargaining is generally conducted in a series of meetings at which representatives of both the union and the employer exchange written proposals for a CBA. Federal labor law requires that parties to collective bargaining engage in good faith negotiations, meaning that the union and the employer meet, confer, and consider each other’s proposals with a genuine desire to reach an agreement.

Representatives of both the University and the union will sit at the bargaining table. On the University's side, labor relations professionals, administrators, and faculty members will 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. 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. From this statutory requirement, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and Supreme Court have developed the distinction between mandatory bargaining subjects (i.e., wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment), and permissive subjects (i.e., subjects that are nonmandatory yet proper topics for bargaining in that addressing or resolving them in bargaining will not conflict with federal or applicable state law).

SEIU has completed negotiating three 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. 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. Regardless, Emory will bargain in good faith with the SEIU and is committed to reaching a fair and equitable agreement.

That is unknown. Indeed, all outcomes of bargaining are unknown. 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.  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.

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.

Yes, both the University and the Union representatives can propose provisions for the contract.

No. Although the Union and the University have a legal duty to bargain in good faith, the NLRA does not require the parties to reach an agreement. As such, it is possible that the parties may reach an “impasse” or a point in collective bargaining where further negotiation would be fruitless as neither side will move from their respective positions. Determining when the parties have reached an impasse is rarely clear cut and often leads to litigation. Yet, if an impasse is reached, the parties could resort to economic weapons, such as a strike, and lead to uncertainty for PhD students.

Click each school to see CBAs negotiated by the SEIU at AmericanTufts, and Brandeis.

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.