School of Engineering PhD Research Assistant (RA) and Teaching Assistant (TA) Unionization Information
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 509 has filed a Petition for an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) seeking to represent all PhD students enrolled and working in the Tufts School of Engineering who provide instructional or research services, for purposes of collective bargaining with the University. The Union does not seek to represent the engineering assistants in a separate unit but instead is calling for an election to be conducted by the NLRB in which the eligible engineering assistants would vote for inclusion into the current Graduate School of Arts and Sciences PhD graduate student assistants’ bargaining unit.
Click here for the NLRB Notice of Election. The election will take place on October 31 and November 1, 2023, between 11:00 AM - 1:00 PM and 5:00 - 6:00 PM, at Joyce Cummings Center, Rear Lobby.
We have created this website to provide those eligible to vote with the facts they will need to make an informed decision. These FAQs will be updated periodically. If you have questions about these FAQs, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have a complaint, please file an anonymous and confidential report via EthicsPoint.
The Current Situation
As noted above, the SEIU has filed a Petition with the NLRB seeking to represent certain PhD students in the Tufts School of Engineering who provide instructional or research services to the University. The union is not seeking a stand-alone bargaining unit of such individuals but rather is asking that the engineering PhD research and teaching assistants vote on whether they wish to be added to the existing unit of Graduate School of Arts and Sciences PhD research and teaching assistants.
This petition is being processed through the NLRB in accordance with its rules and policies. Following discussions between representatives of the University, the union and the NLRB, the parties have agreed that the appropriate voting unit is:
All PhD students enrolled and working in the Tufts School of Engineering who provide instructional or research services, including but not limited to as a Teaching Assistant, or Research Assistant, as a condition of receiving a stipend and/or tuition remission (regardless of funding sources).
Excluded: All undergraduate students, all post-baccalaureate students who work or provide services out of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences or School of Engineering, all other faculty, students who are compensated on an hourly basis or who have no current work or service obligations, confidential employees, managers, guard and supervisors as defined in the Act, and all other employees.
Those eligible to vote in the election are employees in the above unit who were employed during the payroll period ending September 30, 2023, including employees who did not work during that period because they were ill, on vacation, or were temporarily laid off. Additionally, those eligible to vote in the election are: (a) individuals who are employed in a unit position in the Fall 2023 semester; or (b) individuals who were employed in a unit position in the Fall 2022 and/or Spring 2023 semesters, unless the person has graduated from or withdrawn from the program by the election date.
Yes, the election has been scheduled for October 31 and November 1 between the hours of 11:00 AM – 1:00 PM and 5:00 – 6:00 PM on both days. The election will be held in the Joyce Cummings Center, 177 College Avenue, Rear Lobby. You will see more information about the election in the days ahead. Please make plans today to vote!
Representatives of the NLRB will conduct the election. Each side is also allowed to have an observer present throughout the election periods.
Quite simply, the ballot in this election will call for a yes or no answer to the question of whether you (as an eligible PhD RA and/or TA voter) wish to be exclusively represented by the SEIU for purposes of collective bargaining with the university in the same bargaining unit as the current Graduate School of Arts and Sciences graduate assistants. In other words, would you rather negotiate issues of compensation, hours, and working conditions individually, independently, and directly yourself with your supervisor, or delegate that responsibility exclusively to union representatives.
Yes. Any card you may have signed was used by the union in order to support the filing of their Petition with the NLRB, but it does not affect how you may choose to vote in the election to come. As part of the petition process, the union was required to demonstrate to the NLRB that at least 30 percent of the proposed bargaining unit were interested in its representation and that was done by showing such interest with the sufficient number of signature cards along with their Petition. (Please note the NLRB does not tell the university how many cards were filed; it simply indicates that the union has met the 30 percent requisite showing of interest.)
Signing or declining the card is not the same as voting for or against the union. Only the vote that you cast in the election will determine whether the union will be elected as the RAs and/or TAs representative.
Please note that if you signed a card in support of the petition, you are not obligated to vote for the union in the resulting election. You can change your mind. Regardless of whether you will vote for or against the union – we urge you to vote!
Yes. Elections under the National Labor Relations Act are secret ballot votes. When you go to vote, you will receive a paper ballot and privately indicate yes or no, as noted above, as to whether you seek such representation. You do not sign anything when you vote. This means that neither the university nor the union would know how you voted. You are encouraged to maintain the privacy of your voting process – you are not required to disclose your vote to the union, the university, fellow students, or others.
The outcome will be determined by a majority of those who vote, just like any political election. If only 20 people vote, and 11 vote for the union, the union would be voted in. As a result, all RAs and TAs in the bargaining unit would be bound by the election results for years to come, and would be exclusively represented by the union. That is why you should vote. Voting by all members of the bargaining unit is strongly encouraged and critical to accurately representing the position of all students in the proposed bargaining unit.
No. The results of any election will be binding to everyone in the bargaining unit, including students who do not vote, students who vote "no," and all future PhD assistants who come into the bargaining unit. We strongly encourage all eligible students to vote if an election is held.
Yes. Your status as an international student does not affect your ability to vote or to be a member of the union.
No. There is no contract to review at this point. Eligible students must first vote on whether they want to be represented by a union. If a majority of these students vote in favor of a union, then, and only then, would the union and Tufts University begin the collective bargaining process to develop a contract that will apply to the students in the bargaining unit. Once a contract is negotiated, union members will have the opportunity to vote to accept or reject that contract as a whole.
No. The original five year contract that the parties had previously negotiated expired on June 30, 2023. The parties have been engaged in negotiations for a new contract since last May but have not yet reached a new agreement.
No. The parties would still negotiate over what provisions of any Graduate School of Arts and Sciences contract would apply to the Engineering PhD research and teaching assistants as well as what other provisions might be proposed by either side for inclusion in a contract. The provisions of the current Arts and Sciences contract would not automatically apply to you. Of course, the parties may agree that some provisions of the contract might apply with equal force to the engineering students but that is all negotiable.
Express yourself! The law protects everyone’s right to express their opinion for or against unionization. During the pre-election period, the union and its supporters will be campaigning on campus to educate students about the union and encourage students to vote for the union. During this period, the university is also entitled to campaign and to express its views about the RA and TA unionization while at the same time providing educational materials about the impact of unionization on the future RA and TA experience. Similarly, students who oppose the union can also campaign and speak to other students to express their opinion about the impact of the union on the Tufts academic environment and to urge students to vote against the union.
If you oppose unionization, the most important thing you can do is to vote. The university strongly encourages all eligible voters to vote.
Please note that Tufts prohibits retaliation or discrimination against any person for their involvement in or their choice to refrain from participation in union activity. If you have questions about these FAQs, please contact email@example.com. If you have a complaint, please file an anonymous and confidential report via EthicsPoint.
You have the right to express your opinion and to campaign against or for a union free from coercion by the organizing union, other students, or the university. You have the right to ask questions of both union representatives and university officials and become informed as to all the issues. You have the right to vote in secret when the election is held.
Tufts University will not discriminate or retaliate against any RA or TA because of their views either for or against unionization.
The university, by law, is free to communicate with all voters, to campaign against the union, and to express its views on the election. By law, however, the university cannot make any promises to improve working conditions or grant benefits or policy changes in order to have RAs and TAs vote against unionization, nor can it threaten to take away any current benefits to secure votes against the union. Nor can it ask employees how they plan to vote or how others plan to vote.
Accordingly, leading up to the election, the university cannot make any promises to increase stipends or otherwise promise to change working conditions or benefits. On the other hand, administrators and faculty are free to express their opinion about the election and on unions and to provide information about unions and collective bargaining and what it means.
However, the union is not under the same restrictions regarding making promises. The union is free to promise voters anything in an effort to win their votes, but is not legally bound to deliver on the promises. If the union wins, it has the full legal right to negotiate with the university on wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. Both parties must work in good faith to reach an acceptable contract “but such obligation does not compel either party to agree to a proposal or require the making of a concession.” (Section 8 (d) of the National Labor Relations Act.) The following is a quote from the NLRB as part of its decision in a case: “Unions can promise wage increases, better benefits and protecting what you now have during an election campaign, even though they have no actual power to guarantee those things, because those promises are considered mere ‘pre-election propaganda.’”
—Shirlington Supermarket, Inc., 106 NLRB 666 (1953).
Reasons You Might Want to Vote Against Unionization
We very much value your input, advocacy, and partnership in exploring ways to improve working conditions and even the core responsibilities for students serving as RAs and TAs. We would like to continue to work directly with you on shaping these roles within the School of Engineering.
We have worked closely with RAs and TAs and worked collaboratively to implement continuous improvements. For example, over the years we have made the following enhancements which have impacted our PhD students both in their roles as students and employees:
- Put into place a minimum stipend across all graduate programs in the School of Engineering
- Increased the minimum stipend across all graduate programs for the last decade or more
- School of Engineering departments have increased RA and TA stipends by an average of 5.1% every year for the last four years; this is a significantly greater increase than what has been negotiated by the union in the last contract with the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
- Provided a 100-percent subsidy for health insurance coverage for all full-time PhD students in their first five years in the School of Engineering
- Offered full-time PhD students a 12-week paid parental accommodation policy and procedure for new parents
- Established a Work/Life Balance task force, which has as one of its foci graduate student life issues
- Created a Graduate Student Resource Center
- Launched an expansive set of professional development and career workshops
- Incrementally funded more fellowships
- Provided travel support funding for students to travel and present at conferences and professional meetings
- Created opportunities for students to secure funding that supports their individual research project costs through the Graduate Student Research Competition
- Established a series of “grad lab” seminars and tool kits to help students facilitate good communications and establish mutual expectations with advisors
- Invested in new SOE graduate student career services professionals to help students find internships, co-op positions, and full-time positions
- Established food programs to address food insecurity
- Provided clothing programs to ensure students have warm clothes
- Offered subsidies for fitness programs through the Tufts Athletics Department
- Financially sponsored and hosted student leadership conferences on campus with professional organizations
- Offered cross-registration courses with Boston University
We respect your right to make your own decision on whether you want to be unionized or not. The university has a number of unions on campus and prides itself on the relationships it has and continues to cultivate with each one, including the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences unit. But on balance, we would rather continue to deal with you – both as a student and as an employee – directly and collaboratively without having to work through a union representative on employment issues.
We do not think that unionization serves the university or you as an individual student. While the union would have no authority to deal with non-employment, academic issues in collective bargaining, we nonetheless would still have serious concerns about navigating the distinctions between you as a student and you as an employee. The separation is not always clear, and it may be challenging – as many universities have found – to deal with such matters and distinctions at the bargaining table. We also think that working with each of you directly and adjusting terms and conditions of employment to fit your situation remains the best path. We think our record of improving working conditions and compensation over the years demonstrates our commitment to you and the improvements that can take place without a union. Nonetheless, we understand that you may have a different view and have legitimate concerns and issues regarding the RA and/or TA role and the related duties. We prefer to be able to work with you directly and not through a third-party organization on these issues but, of course, the choice will be yours.
Remember that if the union is voted in, the union would become, by law, your exclusive agent for all aspects of compensation, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. The university would no longer be able to work with you directly, or through any other body or committee, on changing your terms and conditions of employment or compensation unless authorized through provisions of the collective bargaining agreement or otherwise through negotiations with the union. The actual language of the National Labor Relations Act can be found on the NLRB website.
Yes. If the union is not voted in, RAs and TAs can seek to unionize again in the future. There is a one-year waiting period after an election until another election can be held. The same union or a different union could seek an election one year later.
Impact on Current and Future RAs and TAs if the Union is Voted In
If the union is not voted in, the university would be able to continue to work together with you directly on matters relating to any compensation, hours, and working conditions. If the union is voted in, the union would become the exclusive representative of School of Engineering PhD research and teaching assistants on matters related to pay, benefits, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. Tufts University would no longer be able to change compensation, hours or other terms and conditions of employment with you directly , or directly through any other body or committee, on such topics unless negotiating such changes with the union or unless authorized by a future collective bargaining agreement.
The National Labor Relations Act requires that, if a union wins an election and is certified, both sides must negotiate in good faith in an effort to reach a collective bargaining agreement on all matters involving topics such as compensation, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. Good faith bargaining means the mutual obligation of labor and management to meet at reasonable times and places in an effort to reach an agreement. But the law does not mandate that any specific proposal go into a collective bargaining agreement nor is either side required to make any particular concession or agree to any particular proposal.
Either side can make proposals to the other in such negotiations, and bargaining does not necessarily begin with the current level of compensation, benefits, or working conditions. Thus, either side may propose changes on compensation, benefits, job expectations, or other mandatory subjects of collective bargaining. There are no guarantees in collective bargaining,
Tufts University works to achieve a constructive relationship with the unions that represent some of its employees; however, collective bargaining can be a lengthy, challenging and even at times an adversarial process, with major disputes about what should go into a collective bargaining agreement.
That's a question for the union. We assume that the union would determine who would serve on the union bargaining team. Typically, union bargaining teams include at least one union business agent or other official and a variable number of members of the bargaining unit, but every union conducts its business differently in this regard.
There are no time limit requirements for the collective bargaining process, but usually first contracts take a year or more from the original affirmative vote to unionize. Some take longer; others take a shorter amount of time. Even negotiations over a successor contract can take time. The current negotiations with the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences unit for a new agreement started in May and the parties are still not done.
If the parties fail to reach agreement, a mediator may be called in to assist in negotiations if both parties agree to do this. However, no third party resolves negotiation disputes in the private sector, and the parties are free to use traditional pressure tactics to force agreement. The most common such tactic is the union's right to call a strike.
No. Once voted in, unions are not subject to reelection. That is why the decision to unionize is so consequential for both current and future students. Typically, an elected union remains the exclusive bargaining agent for employees unless the union is formally "decertified" and/or a different union is elected under NLRB rules. The NLRB process for decertifying a union is complex and time consuming.
No. If RAs and TAs voting in this election vote for the union, the union will represent any and all future RAs and TAs who fall into the bargaining unit regardless of their views on the representation.
Collective Bargaining Information
Not immediately but it is likely you would have to do so as part of a union contract. Federal labor law allows unions to propose in collective bargaining that members of the bargaining unit either become dues-paying union members or pay the union a similar fee as a condition of employment. Most unions seek "union shop" provisions to ensure cash flow into the organization, and, as they often put it, to require a "fair share" from everyone they represent. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) includes these provisions in a number of its collective bargaining agreements covering other units it represents.
Currently, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences graduate student research and teaching assistants are required to pay union dues or comparable agency fees to the SEIU. (See Article 11 of their collective bargaining agreement.) These dues are currently 1.5% of the financial compensation obtained by the graduate assistant, or 1.15% for those who elect to pay an agency fee instead of dues. By way of example, a graduate assistant under the GSAS contract who receives a $26,031 per year stipend will pay $390.47 per year in union dues. An Engineering PhD RA who is making, say, $41,000 per year may pay $615 per year in union dues under such contract language (or $471.50 for those paying an agency fee instead of full union dues.)
Whether there would be the penalty for Engineering PhD research and teaching assistants would be a subject of bargaining. However, it may be helpful to note that Article 11.5 of the current Graduate School of Arts and Sciences contract requires the University to impose a two week unpaid suspension on any research or teaching assistant who does not pay union dues or comparable fees, at the union’s request.
We do not know. That depends on the bargaining process. As a collective bargaining unit, RAs and TAs are considered as a group for collective bargaining. The union negotiates for the bargaining unit and for the unit's interests—not necessarily those of specific individuals. It is certainly possible that the union might propose, and the university might agree to, special provisions for certain groups of RAs and TAs, or such a proposal might come from the university. But we cannot say for sure. That would be up to the union and university representatives at the table.
Yes. Collective bargaining is just that, collective. The union would represent all RAs and TAs determined to be in the bargaining unit, and the provisions in whatever contract they negotiate will apply to all. Once ratified by the union membership, the contract applies with equal force to everyone in the unit.
Hours of work will be a subject of bargaining, and provisions might be put in the collective bargaining agreement dealing with hours of work.
Not necessarily. As a general matter, if the union is elected to represent the SOE PhD research and teaching assistants in their capacity as employees, it will only properly address issues relating to wages and the terms and conditions of your employment. However, academic issues, e.g., expectations for degree completion or disputes over your academic progress, are not appropriate topics of bargaining and will therefore continue to be handled pursuant to University policies, procedures and practices.
Tufts School of Engineering
- To educate students committed to the innovative and ethical application of science and technology, and empower them to address the most pressing societal needs.
- To employ research to advance scientific and engineering knowledge and discover, develop, and disseminate new technologies and innovations that can enhance the well-being and sustainability of society.
Tufts School of Engineering is an academic community where:
- Students prepare themselves to be well-rounded professionals, responsible leaders, and lifelong learners through a rigorous engineering education enhanced by interdisciplinary connections in arts, humanities, and science.
- Faculty members strive to develop the next generation of engineers; and seek, through research, to create knowledge and technology for the benefit of the planet and its population.
- Diversity and inclusion are embraced to empower all students, faculty, and staff to succeed in their academic and professional endeavors.