Doctoral Student Unionization

As national conversations take place about doctoral student unionization, we encourage members of the Laney Graduate School (LGS) community 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 doctoral 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.

At LGS, 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.

Note: There is no doctoral student union election scheduled at Emory University. Emory has not received notice that any union has asked the National Labor Relations Board to conduct such an election.

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 may be required to pay their “fair share,” which is an amount generally very close to the full amount of union dues. 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 doctoral student union at Emory risks blurring the lines between academic and other decisions. Disagreements between doctoral students at other universities have led to significant labor disputes such as strikes or lockouts.

There are also differences in the types of roles doctoral students serve in public and private universities. At public universities, the compensation doctoral 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 doctoral student’s training and professional development. Stipend support for doctoral 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 doctoral 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, doctoral 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 doctoral students, the NLRB would manage an election at Emory, and doctoral 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 card states that the signor authorizes a particular union to be their exclusive representative for the purposes of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment with their employer.

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 would be conducted and supervised by representatives of the NLRB within a few weeks after the Regional Director or the NLRB directs it.

NLRB representatives would conduct and supervise all aspects of a secret-ballot election. Voting would likely take place at an easily accessible location on campus on a specified day, during specified hours. It is also possible it could take place by mail.

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 doctoral 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.

Eligible voters are people who are part of the defined voting unit at the time of the election. Your status as a research or teaching assistant at the time of the election, not your status as a doctoral student, will likely determine if you are eligible to vote. However, without there being agreement on the appropriate unit, it is impossible to know for sure at this point. 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.

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 doctoral 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 doctoral 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.

Current benefits offered to LGS doctoral students include the annual stipend, 100% paid health insurance subsidy, tuition (valued at $22,900 per academic semester in Academic Year 2022-2023), professional development funds, and access to a variety of programs and services offered by LGS.

That is unknown. Indeed, all outcomes of bargaining are unknown. While supporters of doctoral 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.

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 doctoral students in the bargaining unit. The provisions in the contract it negotiates apply to all unit members.

Not generally. Collective bargaining agreements focus on doctoral 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.