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.    

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.

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.