Be Informed – What Princeton Leaves Out

Below, please find excerpts from Princeton’s FAQ with additional information and context provided by Princeton Postdocs. Also please visit the FAQ page on this website for more information. And last, please also feel welcome to reach out with any questions about forming a union.

The University’s Position

Princeton Administration’s FAQ

What They Leave Out

What is the University’s position regarding unionization of postdoctoral researchers and scholars?

By design, union representation would have a real effect on the nature of your relationship with the University. We believe it is essential for you to be fully informed before deciding whether or not unionization is right for you. In the sections below, we have provided background information about unions as well as some context regarding the potential impact of unionization.

We hope every postdoc colleague makes an informed decision regarding Princeton postdocs’ campaign to form a union. We agree with Princeton management on the spirit of transparency and the importance of facts, but it is disappointing to see them disseminate “Frequently Asked Questions” that seem aimed at convincing postdocs to vote against collective bargaining. Management’s FAQ leaves out a basic factual description of our choices regarding unionization. We can choose to form a union, which would mean for the first time ever the Princeton administration would be legally obligated to bargain with elected postdoc representatives over pay, benefits and workplace rights, as 100,000 other UAW academic workers across the United States do with their institutions. Or we can retain the status quo where management decides by itself if, when, and how to consider input from postdocs and makes all final decisions on our workplace rights.

What is the University’s approach to labor relations?

We currently have six labor unions on campus, representing approximately 1,000 staff members who work in such areas as facilities, dining, public safety and security, and certain aspects of the library. Our labor relations approach at the University has been civil, resolution-oriented, communicative, and relationship-based, all hallmarks of a productive relationship regarding their working conditions. At Princeton, union staff members include, for instance, housing and dining personnel and members of the Department of Public Safety. These positions differ in numerous ways from those of postdoctoral researchers and scholars.

We applaud the standard set by unionized employees at Princeton and hope to join their ranks. Regardless of the various work we all do as diverse Princeton employees, all non-unionized workers face the same fundamental challenge: without collective bargaining rights, Princeton management unilaterally controls every aspect of our employment. Such is the case whether one works in teaching, research, dining, clerical, facilities, or any other aspect of the university. All workers stand to benefit from forming a union, regardless of what work we do.

Background Information about Unions, Unionization and Union Representation

Princeton Administration’s FAQ

What They Leave Out

What is a union?

A union is an organization that serves as an agent representing a group of employees for purposes of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment, such as pay, benefits and working conditions. The negotiation process is known as “collective bargaining.” A “bargaining unit” is a specific category of employees with a community of interest (e.g., similar occupations, geographic location, duties, payment structure, review/rating system, etc.) represented by a union for purposes of collective bargaining. When a union exists, the bargaining must be between the employer and the union, not between the employer and individuals represented by the union.

We are the union. By working together and determining our priorities collectively, we can build more power to improve our working conditions. Currently, individual postdocs do not have the ability to bargain with our employer as equals over our rights and benefits. Once we have formed our union, Princeton will have a legal obligation to negotiate with postdoctoral researchers. Individuals will have many ways to participate in the process and make their voice heard, including shaping our goals through surveys, meetings and other forums, running for or electing representatives who will negotiate with the Princeton administration, and voting to ratify our first contract. None of this would necessarily prevent individual postdocs from discussing working conditions with our faculty supervisors. As an example, all UAW postdoc contracts preserve the right of individual PIs and postdocs to work out salary rates higher than the minimums negotiated in collective bargaining - see examples from Columbia University (Art. 2), University of Washington (Art. 32), and University of California (Art. 4).

What is a union contract/collective bargaining agreement?

A union contract or collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is a legally binding contract between the employees within the bargaining unit and the employer, arrived at through negotiations between the employer and the union, which sets forth the terms and conditions of employment (e.g., wages, working hours and conditions, holidays, vacations, certain [but not all] benefits, etc.) and procedures for dispute resolution.

Collective bargaining is a democratic process in which we elect a committee of our peers, negotiate in good faith with Princeton management, and eventually vote on whether or not to ratify any agreement before it goes into effect.

How does a group of employees become unionized?

Typically, a group of employees who want to unionize will affiliate with an established labor union for purposes of organizing a new chapter. Once the group has affiliated with a labor union, organizers employed by the union will collect “authorization cards” to show that at least 30% of the employees the union seeks to represent are interested in union representation.

If a union collects enough cards to constitute a valid “showing of interest,” the union (or the employer) can file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold a secret-ballot election. If the majority of eligible voters choosing to cast ballots vote to approve the union, the union becomes the exclusive representative of all the employees in the bargaining unit for the purposes of collective bargaining with respect to wages, hours, or other conditions of employment. Whether or not an employee in the bargaining unit voted to approve the union and whether or not an employee wants to join the union, all employees in the bargaining unit would then be represented by the union.

Princeton postdoctoral researchers began talking with colleagues about forming a union after we organized to win a roughly 20% pay increase last year. In the course of this campaign, a majority of postdocs signed an open letter calling on Princeton to provide a reasonable salary increase. Despite this improvement, the Princeton administration did not meet all of our demands. Without a union, Princeton retains the power to decide if, how, and when to increase pay and make any other changes. Since then, we’ve talked to hundreds if not thousands of other postdocs about collectively improving our working conditions. We are working to involve the largest possible number of postdocs in the unionization process in order to allow everyone to make their voice heard and so that collectively, we have greater power going into negotiations with management over a union contract.

What is an authorization card? How are authorization cards used in the unionization process?

An authorization card is a signed document giving permission for a union to be the signer's exclusive representative for the purposes of negotiating the terms and conditions of that signer's employment. Unions collect authorization cards in 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. Thirty percent of the potential members of a bargaining unit need to sign cards for an election to occur.

Authorization cards generally must have a stated purpose of designating the union as the employee’s exclusive bargaining representative. Authorization cards are legal documents. They are the equivalent of giving a union power of attorney over the terms and conditions of your employment. Before signing any union-related document, be sure the document expresses a clear purpose and you understand what you are signing and its implications.

Signing authorization cards is the first phase in our process of forming a union. Signing an authorization card means expressing your support for forming a union of postdocs at Princeton – and once a large enough number of other postdocs sign to express their support as well, we can ask Princeton to voluntarily recognize our Union, or we can petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold a union election where all postdocs will vote on whether or not to form a union. No postdoc will pay dues until after Princeton postdocs have ratified our first contract.

Once an individual has signed a card, can that individual take it back?

Under federal law, a union has no legal obligation to return an authorization card once it has been signed and submitted. Unless and until an election is held, an individual should assume that a signed authorization card is binding.

However, you can always ask the union directly if you can have your card back. In the event of an election, whether or not you signed a card creates no obligation on how you vote.

If you have any questions or thoughts about having signed an authorization card, reach out to a colleague involved in the union in your department, or email info@princetonpostdocunion.org. Another postdoc involved in the effort will gladly meet with you to discuss any concerns you might have. The choice of whether or not to sign a union authorization card is up to each individual postdoc.

Am I required to provide my contact information to a union or sign any other document a union requests?

No. Although unions try to obtain information about potential voters during an organizing drive, you have no obligation to provide personal or any other information to them. Unions are not bound by privacy restrictions and can use your information for purposes of their choosing. However, if a union files a representation petition at the NLRB, the University will have to provide eligible voters’ contact information to the NLRB and the union.

Postdoctoral researchers can choose what information to share with their colleagues. This information will be held confidential and only used for organizing purposes to make sure everyone has the opportunity to participate, and to represent ourselves effectively in collective bargaining once we reach that stage. Providing up to date contact information also helps ensure we are able to share important updates as we continue with our campaign.

How do unions obtain the right to represent employees?

Union representation can occur through either voluntary employer recognition or a secret-ballot election in which those eligible to be in the bargaining unit are invited to vote “yes” or “no” on the question of union representation. If a majority of those who vote choose union representation, all eligible voters (and those who occupy union-represented positions in the future) would be exclusively represented by the union in their dealings with the University concerning the terms and conditions of employment. This is true whether or not a particular member of the bargaining unit participated in the election.

This is largely correct. Princeton can choose to voluntarily recognize our union after a majority of postdoctoral researchers have signed authorization cards. Whether or not we decide to seek voluntary recognition, or request that Princeton remains neutral and not interfere with our democratic choice to form a union, we hope that the university administration would respect the choice of the majority of postdocs. If the administration chooses not to respse postdocs’ choice and actively campaigns against our union, we retain the legal right to Seek a secret-ballot election through the National Labor Relatiosn Board (NLRB) regardless.

What does it mean to be represented by a union?

A union that has been certified to represent a bargaining unit of employees serves as the exclusive representative of all employees in the bargaining unit with respect to the terms and conditions of their employment. The union typically has the authority and exclusive right to negotiate with the employer about these subjects, and no individual employee is permitted to engage in separate negotiations over their individual employment terms. For example, if a labor contract set parameters on the work hours of postdoctoral researchers and scholars, individual researchers would not be able to make personal arrangements with their Principal Investigator (PI), unless the contract provided for exceptions.

Princeton management currently holds exclusive, unilateral control over our pay, benefits and workplace rights. Like most employers, they would probably prefer to retain that power.

Union representation, on the other hand, is a process, protected by US law, that equalizes the power relationship between employees and their employer. The UAW currently represents 100,000 academic workers in collective bargaining at institutions across the US. Through collective bargaining, postdocs and other academic workers in the UAW have successfully negotiated improved wages and benefits, stronger protections against discrimination and harassment, expanded family-friendly benefits like paid leave and childcare subsidies or funds, retirement, and other important provisions. With collective bargaining, the Princeton administration would be legally obligated to negotiate salary rates with our elected bargaining team and all postdocs would vote democratically on the results of those negotiations.

Collective bargaining also allows for flexibility in areas we decide are appropriate. As an example, all UAW postdoc contracts preserve the right of individual PIs and postdocs to work out salary rates higher than the minimums negotiated in collective bargaining. You can see examples from Columbia University (Article 2), University of Washington (Article 32), and University of California (Article 4).

Why have some postdoctoral researchers at peer institutions supported unionization?Some postdoctoral researchers at peer institutions have supported unionization because they believe, in the context of their university, it provides an avenue for them to advocate collectively for their interests as they relate to pay, hours and other terms and conditions of their employment. Not all researchers and universities take the same approaches or are in the same positions. That is why each individual should make an informed decision for themselves

In recent years, postdocs at US universities and research institutions have overwhelmingly supported forming postdoc unions of their own. As of December 2023, postdocs have formed unions or are in the process of organizing unionization campagisn at the University of California, University of Washington, Columbia University, University of Connecticut, University of Massachusetts, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Weill Cornell Medicine, the National Institutes of Health, Harvard University, Brown University, and more. Recently, postdocs and other research fellows at the NIH voted overwhelmingly to form a union with 98% voting “yes.” Similar working conditions and inadequate pay and benefits for postdocs across US research institutions has led to a broad movement for unionization across higher education. Though we face some specific issues by nature of being employed at Princeton, most issues we experience are shared by postdocs across the country: inadequate pay, rising cost of living, insufficient health and retirement benefits, lack of support for parenting postdocs, lack of support for international postdocs, and other issues endemic to the research profession at large.

Are all labor unions the same?

No. Different unions represent postdoctoral researchers throughout the country, and each union, in conjunction with the members of its bargaining unit, sets its own goals, style and approach to bargaining.

Our union campaign is of, by, and for postdoctoral researchers at Princeton and supported by the United Auto Workers (UAW), the national union that includes the largest number of postdocs and graduate student employees. It is postdocs who started our own union effort, postdocs who are leading the campaign, postdocs who are having conversations about forming a union with our colleagues, and postdocs who will be elected to the bargaining committee once we start negotiating with the Princeton administration. Postdocs ourselves will decide on our bargaining priorities and vote to approve any contract negotiated by the bargaining committee. While most issues faced by postdocs across various institutions are shared, us Princeton postdocs will be the ones shaping our particular campaign, our bargaining demands, and other aspects of our union.