FAQ #2

Frequently Asked Questions

If you have a question that isn’t answered here, please contact us or get in touch with a TRU representative in your department!

What is TRU and why do we need a graduate student union?

What is TRU?

We are a group of graduate student workers at JHU know as Teachers and Researchers United (TRU) working towards an independently arbitrated election in which the graduate student body will vote on whether or not to have an officially recognized union of their peers that will negotiate a contract with the university. We believe that many issues individual graduate students face at the university can best be solved through collective improvements negotiated and solidified through a contract with the university.

Why do we need a graduate student union?

Forming a union would give us a seat at the table, allowing for graduate student workers to negotiate collectively and ensure that everybody benefits from these improvements regardless of department and immigration status. We are building a graduate student union to secure better research conditions for grads across the university, including but not limited to:

  1. Living Wages for All
  2. Guaranteed On-Time Payment
  3. Improved Support for International Students
  4. Safe and Reliable Transportation & Workspaces
  5. Effective Grievance Procedures
  6. A Commitment to the City of Baltimore
    You can read more about our platform here.

What is a Graduate Student Union?

A graduate student union is a democratic body of graduate student workers that can collectively bargain over our employment conditions including stipends, access to equipment for research, and more. There are graduate student unions at universities across the country, including MIT, Brown, Harvard, NYU, and more.

What is a union contract?

A union contract is a binding legal document that is negotiated between an employer and a group of employees that creates a required standard of compensation, benefits, and working conditions. This process is legally protected and the employer is required to abide by the terms of the contract.

A union contract can set limits on required work hours, minimum levels of compensation, and other needs that graduate workers negotiate collectively! This contract will be ratified by all the graduate students who will be covered by it.

How will a union help my research?

We are building a graduate student union to remove barriers to research at JHU. We need reliable access to the tools that allow us to do our research, such as equipment for performing work, reliable transportation options to get to work, and safe buildings to perform that research. A living wage will also allow students to focus on their research without being burdened by concerns about having enough to cover their bills. Our working conditions are our research conditions and improving both are necessary to remove the barriers we face and allow our research to thrive.

How do we form a graduate student union?

There are four basic steps in building a graduate student union. 

  1. Build an Organizing Committee
  2. Collect Union Cards and submit petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)
  3. Once the petition is accepted, turn up to the polls for the union election
  4. Negotiate a contract that must be ratified by the majority of grad students at JHU.

To learn more about the NLRB process, click here.

What have other graduate student unions been able to win?

Graduate student workers at other institutions have successfully negotiated a variety of improvements: better wages and benefits, increased access to workspace/materials, establishing fair processes for stopping sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and microaggressions; and guaranteed short and long-term leaves.

Read More details about what Graduate Student Unions have been able to win:

  • MITGSU is just beginning bargaining, however they secured an unprecedented mid-year raise just 17 days after announcing the formation of MITGSU!
  • Harvard’s graduate student union secured major wins in their latest contract.
  • Columbia secured their first union contract which laid out significant improvements to their research conditions!

Why can’t we secure these improvements with the existing mechanisms?

Graduate students over many years have attempted to secure these improvements through the existing channels, including spending our time and energy in our department-level advocacy groups, on various committees with administrators, and within the Graduate Representative Organization, Graduate Student Association, Student Assembly, etc. Our experience with these institutional mechanisms is the reason we know that we must pursue unionization. Many graduate students on these committees have had their ideas stalled, been told they’re asking for too much, and been given an endless list of other excuses for why JHU will not grant us what we need to conduct research effectively and live dignified lives. Right now, the university has the final say for all changes to our research conditions and it is only through a union that we can take that power back as the people who perform the work that makes Hopkins run!


 How Will We Bargain A Good Contract?

Who will be at the bargaining table with Hopkins?

The Bargaining Committee (BC) will represent us at the bargaining table. The BC is a group of 22 elected graduate workers who serve as official representatives of TRU-UE during collective bargaining with the university. The BC is responsible for preparing and presenting contract proposals that address graduate workers’ most pressing concerns, and negotiating contract details with the university. Throughout this process, the BC works closely with TRU-UE’s Contract Action Team (CAT), to keep the thousands of graduate workers across the university engaged in the process of setting bargaining priorities and mobilizing to win improvements to our working conditions!

What Does Bargaining Look Like?

The collective bargaining process involves negotiating terms and conditions of employment between the employer (JHU) and the Bargaining Committee (BC). Typically, both parties make proposals on subjects such as grievance procedures, compensation and benefits, workload expectations, safety and non-discrimination policies, etc. Through a series of negotiation meetings, both parties eventually come to an agreement in the form of a contract. Our proposals are always based on the demands of graduate workers as a whole, and come from surveys, walkthroughs and CAT meetings. Once bargaining is completed, the contract will be voted on by the membership.

How can I participate in bargaining?

Our strength is in our numbers, therefore we all have a role to play towards a successful contract. Here are some ways you can contribute to our bargaining efforts:

  • Sign a union card today and become a member of TRU-UE
  • Join the Contract Action Team (CAT) to help build support and keep  your coworkers, labmates, and friends informed and engaged as the bargaining process proceeds
  • Attend CAT meetings to remain up-to-date on upcoming negotiations, learn about emerging opportunities to help, and to build community
  • Join a CAT committee to contribute to organizing efforts or a Working Group to focus on specific topics in addition to broader organizing
  • Attend weekly Coffee Hours to talk with BC and CAT members about your concerns and ask questions.

As was done with non-economic proposals, we will also have opportunities throughout the economic proposals development process for CAT members to provide feedback through various channels.


What are we bargaining for and why?

Why are we starting with non-economic proposals?

Bargaining contracts is a prospective process. Once the employee and the employer agree on a contract, it is bad form to go backwards and revoke that agreement. When we bargain non-economic proposals, we are adding wins to our side so our economic proposals have a stronger backing. This also helps to enshrine our non-economic wins (like a fair grievance procedure) without having to bargain them against our right to a living wage. This means we will not be able to negotiate paid leave, higher wages, or improved access to healthcare until we have bargained for non-economic proposals.  You can learn more about these non-economic proposals here.

What sorts of proposals count as non-economic?

Non-economic proposals address conditions under which work is performed. These include grievance procedures, anti-discrimination policies, workload expectations and hours of work. 

Who is represented by the contact? 

All students enrolled in JHU doctoral degree programs, who are employed to provide instructional or research services, including teaching assistants, research assistants, and fellows are included in the “bargaining unit” that our contract will represent. This unit currently excludes all other employees, undergraduate students; graduate students in Masters programs, graduate students not seeking Johns Hopkins degrees, office clericals, managers, guards and supervisors.

What are union dues?

You won’t pay any dues until a formal contract is negotiated with JHU and approved through a democratic vote. Dues are an important part of a membership-led organization and strengthen our voice and power at the bargaining table. The UE membership dues are 1.44% of a worker’s pay, deducted automatically from paychecks. One-third of our dues will fund the operation of our local union. This includes compensating organizing staff, putting on events, maintaining organizing infrastructure, and whatever else our membership deems appropriate for advancing our collective interests. The remaining two-thirds of our dues go to the national union, helping to pay for professional legal and research resources, national union staff who support drives like ours, and a general fund to support workers forced to strike. Importantly, UE does not make political contributions, so none of our dues will be used to support political campaigns. Again, dues don’t start until our raises do, and our raises will incorporate these due deductions.

How will our Grievance procedure function?

This is the enforcement mechanism for the entire contract. If the employer does not follow the contract, you may file a grievance.

There are two grievance processes:

    1. Informal: conversation with the supervisor who broke the contract. Must be completed within 30 days
    2. Formal: official complaint with specific details and evidence. Must be filed within 45 days. Grievance will be decided in increasingly higher-ranked JHU employers (Chair, Dean, and Provost).

Final measure will be hiring a third-party federal mediator to decide the case

Why are we setting 20-hour work weeks?

The 20 hour work week is based on existing federal work hour limits for international students on a visa.

Do I have to log my hours?

Nope! If you do begin a grievance, it might be useful to log your hours, but the union cannot make you log your hours.

What if I can’t get my research done in exactly 20 hours?

The 20 hour limit is a maximum that you can be forced to work. If you want to spend 15 hours making a powerpoint and then another 30 hours animating it, that is well within your worker’s rights! The 20 hour limit is in place to give you the option to tell your employer no when you are assigned an unreasonable workload.

How does the union define what my job is?

The Union’s contract does not define exactly what you are responsible for as a student, researcher, or teacher. The contract does set guidelines so that when the administration offers you a job, they must be up front and transparent about the work you’re responsible for, how much you’re paid, and provide you with the necessary resources to complete the tasks assigned. Anything within this counts towards the 20hr work week.

Any work that is not on the contract you agree to is not your job, and the employer cannot ask you to do it.

Why is policing a union issue?

Our Union’s strength depends on our ability to organize and pressure the administration when they don’t move on issues that are important to us. In the presence of an armed private police under the sole control of the university, the kind of pressure campaigns necessary to move the administration would be met with violence and arrests as has been seen in our peer institutes who are subject to private armed police forces. Since the union’s foundation, our membership has actively opposed the militarisation of Hopkins campuses, as both a safety concern in itself and as an excuse to not spend money on better ways of improving the safety of graduate workers. 

What does it mean to have a commitment to the city of Baltimore?

It means that Johns Hopkins exists within the city of Baltimore, derives labor from its residents, extracts value from its land through gentrification projects and not paying property taxes, and in other ways, intentional and not, affects the conditions of the city and its residents. Hopkins will always have a relationship with the city of Baltimore through its physical presence in the city, and through its economic position as one of the biggest employers in Baltimore. Therefore, it must earnestly commit to engaging in this relationship in a way that is beneficial rather than detrimental to the Baltimore community, and we as employees of Hopkins must be part of this change.


Joining Teachers and Researchers United (TRU)!

I’m interested in getting involved, where do I start?

Great! First, sign your union card here. To get in touch with an organizer in your department and join our Contract Action Team (CAT), fill out the form found here.  We have graduate student workers performing lab/office walkthroughs talking to people in departments across the university, participating in various committees, and chatting one on one with their colleagues about building a grad student union that works for all of us!

What does signing a union card mean?

igning your union card means you want to become a member of Teachers and Researchers United (TRU-UE), the union for all graduate student workers a JHU. Signing your card means that you stand with your colleagues in demanding a living wage for all, guaranteed on-time payment, improved support for international students, safe and reliable facilities & transportation, fair grievance procedures, and a commitment to the city of Baltimore. When a majority of workers sign, we will submit signed cards to call for JHU to voluntarily recognize our union and begin bargaining with us, or hold an NLRB election where we will vote yes to have our union bargain our contract.

I’m signing my union card, but what do I put for the role?

Use your best judgment on what your role is. Your role generally will be determined by your main funding source. If you are on fellowship, put fellow, if the majority of your stipend comes from teaching responsibilities, put TA, etc. If you are unsure of what role you have, you can put grad researcher! An organizer will follow up if need be.

I have more questions, how can I get them answered?

Great! We have organizers in almost every department and division across the university, so there’s probably someone you know who’d be happy to talk more about TRU with you and any of your questions, issues, or concerns. Just email us at trujhu@gmail.com with your name, and someone will be in touch soon!  We also hold weekly Coffee Hours  where you can talk with BC and CAT members about your concerns and ask questions!

Will I have to go on strike?

No! As long as JHU bargains with us in good faith, we will not have to go on strike. A key motivation in having a majority of graduate student workers signing union cards is that such a show of solidarity encourages JHU to recognize our union without contest. In that case, we would not need to go on strike. Half of all private university graduate student unions have never had to authorize a strike. 

At the same time, it is important to recognize that our labor is our most powerful bargaining chip. Through our labor in research, teaching, and other activities, we generate significant value to JHU. We can send a powerful message to JHU if we withhold that labor: JHU works because we do. Additionally, strikes can vary in form and specific strikes around teaching and other services, rather than research activities, can be a critical way of demonstrating the amount of labor we put into the University. 

The decision to strike is never made lightly. A strike requires a supermajority vote of all grad-workers (this is called a strike authorization vote). This means a supermajority of graduate student workers have decided that JHU is not negotiating in good faith with our union and a strike is necessary. Our union will never require any worker to strike, but if we decide to strike, we are most powerful when we stand united.  

Do I have to pay union dues?

There are no union dues until a contract is negotiated with JHU and approved through a democratic vote. Union dues are an essential part of a membership-led organization. As part of this contract there will be a compensatory increase in student researcher wages to account for the cost of union dues. This is a common practice when a union negotiates its first contract. Thus, the union will be negotiating with this in mind so that the union dues do not impact student researchers. In fact, the dues we pay will pale in comparison to the benefits we are able to secure using our power as a union!


Know Your Rights!

Who is allowed to participate in a union?

If you are receiving a paycheck from JHU in exchange for work related to research assistantships or teaching assistantships, you are a worker and therefore eligible to be part of TRU. Most broadly, this includes anyone who is currently working as a graduate student (PhD) in one of the divisions of JHU (including Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Whiting School of Engineering, Bloomberg School of Public Health, School of Medicine, School of Nursing and School of Education). Master’s students are welcome to work with us regardless of whether they are funded or not. If you have questions about the legal constraints on union eligibility, please reach out!

Are international students eligible to be in a union?

YES! International workers enjoy the same legal rights to participate in organizing efforts as citizens/legal residents. Visa requirements in no way compromise your right to join a graduate advocacy group for your U.S. workplace. International student workers have participated in organizing graduate unions across the U.S in great numbers, including within TRU already. Any threat that organizing for a union could compromise legal status is not only wrong, it is illegal! For more information on international student workers and their rights to unionize, please see our page for international grad workers.

Can the university retaliate against me for being involved in a union?

NO! Any form of retaliation for union activity/involvement is illegal per the National Labor Relations Act. Graduate student workers have the right to support and participate in union organizing at work. The university cannot fire, discipline, or otherwise discriminate against you in any way. Additionally, you cannot be asked about your opinion on support or whether you are participating in TRU. Further, you cannot be threatened with any changes to your compensation, benefits, or other conditions for participation in a union.


Potential Impacts

Will my stipend decrease by joining a union?

There have been no examples of a grad student union contract decreasing any member’s salary to date. In fact, any union contract must be ratified by a majority of all grad students covered by it, meaning that the say is ultimately with the members. We all need a raise, so we won’t vote for a pay cut!

How will stipend increases be paid for? Will my advisor have to take less students?

Currently, JHU takes approximately half of all grant money that enters the institution through the PI’s. Other institutions have reduced the amount taken from PI’s for “overhead” to allow for stipend increases to match the cost of living. Additionally, as of June 2021, Johns Hopkins had the fifteenth largest endowment of any U.S. university, valued at $9.3 billion. The JHU endowment includes $1.3 billion of unrestricted reserves available to offset the rising cost of living. Plus, over the past two fiscal years (2020 and 2021), JHU has accumulated a $290 million budget surplus. In short, Hopkins can afford it!

Won’t being involved in TRU’s efforts harm my relationship with my advisor/PI?

We’re building a union to remove barriers to conducting our research! Removing these barriers will allow us to get more done by improving the conditions we do our work under. It is exactly this reason that the advisor mentee relationship should remain unchanged with a union. In fact, part of our platform includes effective grievance procedures to resolve disputes between advisors and mentees, as well as codify our access to vacation time and work hours so graduate student workers are able to maintain a healthy work-life balance that allows us to thrive