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-UE and what is a graduate worker union?

We are a union of graduate student workers at JHU known as Teachers and Researchers United-United Electrical Workers (TRU-UE). We are made up of over 2,000 members from departments across campus who perform teaching and research labor at Johns Hopkins. 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. We are currently negotiating our first contract.

A union gives 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. Our graduate student union is working 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.

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

We formed 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.

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.

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:

  • Compilations of some grad union wins can be found here and here.
  • MITGSU’s bargaining progress can be tracked on their website.
  • 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!

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 knew 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. Without a union, the university has the final say for all changes to our research conditions. It is only through a union that we claim that power back as we do the work that makes Hopkins run!

How will we bargain a good contract?

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. Our proposals and Hopkins’ counter-proposals will be made available to anyone interested in following on our website, similar to MITGSU’s bargaining tracker.

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!

Our strength is in our numbers—this means we all have a role to play in winning a successful contract. 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.
  • Sign up to observe a bargaining session and see the process for yourself!

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

What are we bargaining for and why?

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.

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

Thousands of grad workers built our union by talking to each other about the issues we face at work. Bargaining is the same way! Our contract wins are actually not earned at the table; we will win what we are organized to take by showing our strength outside the negotiating room. 

Membership will receive an update via email–also posted to our website–within 24 hours of each bargaining session, summarizing the proposals and counter-proposals made. Just as our union was built by 1:1 conversations, 1:1 conversations between organizers and members are our central, most effective method to inform the BC as to how membership receives the latest updates, and which issues we are more committed to fighting for. We’ve got walkthroughs, coffee hours, and larger meetings planned after each bargaining session so we can find out which issues matter most to membership and how hard we want to fight on each counterproposal made by JHU. When the administration refuses to move at the table, we will take collective action together to show we won’t accept an unfair contract!

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.

Dues are an important part of a member-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. However, you won’t pay any dues until a formal contract is negotiated with JHU and approved through a democratic vote. Members will not vote to ratify a contract which does not include a raise more than making up for dues contributions. 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 infrastructure connecting us to other unions. 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.

Until we are paying monthly dues, our union’s organizing costs are funded by generous donations–we encourage all supporters and members to begin donating regularly here to keep our union strong.

This is the enforcement mechanism for the entire contract. If the employer does not follow the contract, union members, with the help of trained union representatives, may file a grievance.

There are two grievance processes:

  1. Informal: begins with a conversation with the supervisor who broke the contract. Must be completed within 30 days. A union representative can accompany union members.
  2. Formal: involves an 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). A union representative can accompany union members.

If a satisfactory resolution is not achieved, a neutral, third-party arbiter can be hired to mediate between parties.

We will bargain over economic proposals after non-economic proposals (see “why are we starting with non-economic proposals?” above), likely within a few months. The timeline of bargaining is largely determined by how organized we are. While we cannot predict at the start of bargaining how long it will take to negotiate each provision of our contract, a highly engaged membership can pressure the administration to meet our demands.

Yes. Economic proposals will be drafted by the Bargaining Committee over the next few months in response to members’ feedback on the bargaining survey. Similar to non-economic proposals, there will be a period of feedback and revision where organizers and BC members facilitate town halls, 1:1 conversations, and coffee hours. Then, all members will vote on the economic proposals before BC brings them to the table.

In addition to the non-economic and economic proposals, members vote on the tentative agreement reached at the end of negotiations. Throughout, as mentioned above, members have constant opportunities to provide input and learn more about what’s happening at the bargaining table.

The timeline of bargaining is largely determined by how organized we are. While we cannot predict at the start of bargaining how long it will take to negotiate each provision of our contract, by demonstrating our engagement and putting pressure on the administration, we can ensure our issues are resolved quickly.

Clarifications of Contract Details:

In our contract proposals, we propose a limit of 20 hours on the labor graduate workers can be required to perform in an average week. The 20-hour work week represents the existing federal work hour limit for international students on a visa. It is not a limit on how much you can choose to work, but it is a limit on how much you can be forced to work. You are always free to do as much research as you’d like, but the 20 hour proposal gives you the option to tell your employer when you are assigned an unreasonable workload.

Nope! If you do begin a grievance, it might be useful to log your hours, but the union is not attempting to require you to log your hours.

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 20-hour 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.

Since the union’s foundation, our membership has actively opposed the militarization 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. 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. We can do this more flexibly in the absence of an armed private police under the sole control of the university. 

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 – UE (TRU-UE)

Great! First, sign your union card here. To get in touch with an organizer in your department, reach out to your representative here or send us an email at trujhu@gmail.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!

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 at 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. Card signers participate in our union’s democratic processes, from electing our bargaining committee to voting on our contract proposals.

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.

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!    

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. 

Know Your Rights

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). If you have questions about the legal constraints on union eligibility, please reach out!

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.

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

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!

Currently, JHU takes approximately half of all grant money that enters the institution through the PIs. Other institutions have reduced the amount taken from PIs 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!

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 for exactly this reason that the advisor-mentee relationship should remain unchanged with a union. In addition, 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!