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:
- Living Wages for All
- Guaranteed On-Time Payment
- Improved Support for International Students
- Safe and Reliable Transportation & Workspaces
- Effective Grievance Procedures
- 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.
- Build an Organizing Committee
- Collect Union Cards and submit petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)
- Once the petition is accepted, turn up to the polls for the union election
- 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!
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, fill out the form found here. Check the box to get a follow up and/or send us an email at email@example.com so we can tell you more about the campaign and answer any additional questions you have! 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?
Signing 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 firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, and someone will be in touch soon!
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.
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!