Be Informed – What Caltech Leaves Out

In March, Caltech launched a website on which the Institute states “The Caltech administration believes that unionization is not in the best interest of our graduate students, our postdocs, or our broader research and learning community.” While this is disappointing, it is not surprising – forming a union provides Grad Students and Postdocs with the right to collectively bargain, which helps to equalize the power relationship between employers and employees. For this reason, most large employers, including Universities, oppose unionization. Despite this, in the past year alone, thousands of graduate employees and postdocs have chosen to unionize.

Below, please find excerpts from Caltech’s FAQ with additional information and context provided by Caltech grads and postdocs. Also please visit the FAQ page on this website for more information. And last, please also feel welcome to reach out to CGPU or to any of the authors of the responses below.

Caltech Administration’s FAQ

What they leave out

In the fall of 2022, the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) launched a union organizing campaign seeking to represent graduate students and postdoctoral scholars on Caltech's campus.

The following frequently asked questions provide general information about union representation, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election process, and collective bargaining. We hope you find this information helpful. We will update this page to provide additional answers on related topics as needed.

Ryan Rubenzahl, G5, Astronomy - 

Caltech grad students and postdocs have been discussing unionization for several years. When 40% of the grad student body signed a petition demanding that healthcare cuts made by Caltech during the 2020 pandemic be rolled back, it was clear that we needed a union  to protect and build on our benefits. In fall 2021, several grad students reached out to personal contacts in the UC grad union (UAW 2865) for advice on how to unionize. While we have asked for and received support from UAW organizers (who are themselves former grad students) when needed, it is was a group of Caltech grad students and postdocs who launched our union campaign, seeking to form a union so we can collectively bargain with Caltech. 

Caltech has openly stated they oppose graduate student and postdoc unionization, and launched a webpage that leaves out crucial facts and pieces of context. Besides the responses here, please also see our FAQ page which discusses questions we have commonly heard from grads and postdocs during hundreds of in-person conversations. And of course, please reach out with any questions or concerns you may have!

Unionization Overview

Caltech Administration’s FAQ

What they leave out

What is Caltech Grad Researchers and Postdocs United (CGPU)—UAW?

Caltech Grad Researchers and Postdocs United (CGPU) is an organization of Caltech graduate students and postdoctoral scholars who are interested in forming a union to represent all graduate students and postdocs at Caltech. If a union is formed on campus, the union would be the exclusive representative of all Caltech graduate students and postdocs and would collectively bargain with the Institute regarding terms and conditions of employment, such as pay and benefits.

The United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) represents 400,000 active members globally, and has worked with hospitals, non-profit organizations, and automobile industry employees.

Ryan Rubenzahl, G5, Astronomy - 

Once CGPU-UAW is formed and recognized as a union, Grad Researchers and Postdocs would collectively bargain with Caltech. The priorities of bargaining are decided by all Grad Researchers and Postdocs, and after bargaining for those priorities, the terms of a potential contract will only be ratified after being voted upon by all Grad Researchers and Postdocs.

Our union of Caltech graduate student researchers and postdoctoral scholars would affiliate with UAW; over 100,000 other academic workers at USC, the University of California, Columbia, Harvard, University of Washington, Mt. Sinai, and more have also affiliated.

Please find more information on our website at, or reach out to one of us directly with any questions!

Are international graduate students eligible to be in a union?

Yes. International student status does not affect eligibility to be included in the union. The process for determining who is included in the bargaining unit applies to all graduate students regardless of immigration status.

Sam Ponnada, G3, Astronomy -

Caltech is absolutely right that international students are eligible to unionize. Given their visa situations, international students and postdocs arguably have even more reason to unionize and collectively bargain for protections against unfair treatment and termination. Other higher-ed unions have won significant benefits specific to international scholar needs related to visa fees and renewal, tax filing assistance, and protections from identity-based harassment.

Are all graduate students and postdocs obligated to join the union if the union wins an election?

Yes, if they are considered part of the bargaining unit. If a union is formed on campus, and someone holds a position that falls within the bargaining unit, they will automatically be represented by the union. The union would be the exclusive representative negotiating with the Institute on compensation, benefits, and working conditions. An individual cannot opt out of being in the bargaining unit, even if they do not support the union.

Jasmine Emtage, G2, Biology -

The term bargaining unit, as used here, defines a group of people who share common workplace conditions, do similar work, and share a common supervisory structure such that it makes sense for them to bargain together. In bargaining for grad and postdoc union contracts everyone at Caltech who falls under those employment definitions will benefit from the protections of the same contract.
Grads and postdocs are already subject to Caltech policies and workplace standards, which are determined unilaterally by Caltech administration. All of us are subject to those policies, and we cannot opt-out.

With a union, Caltech grads and postdocs gain the right to collectively bargain with Caltech regarding workplace policies. This is a democratic process that includes electing a bargaining team, participating and providing feedback through the bargaining process, and eventually voting on any union contract before it goes into effect. “Exclusive representation” means that the union we are forming, CGPU-UAW, is the only union for Caltech grads and postdocs. This is an important protection to ensure that Caltech administration cannot circumvent the democratic bargaining process (for example, Caltech cannot choose to bargain with a different group than the one elected by grads and postdocs).

Does union membership cost money?

Yes. As a member of a union, an individual may be charged dues, initiation fees, fines, and assessments, among other costs. Unions decide these costs according to their own formulas and usually seek to have dues and fees directly drawnfrom members' paychecks. In California, employees can be required to join a union and pay dues in order to get or keep a job. Even if an individual voted "no" for the union, the union—as their exclusive bargaining representative—would still be entitled to collect fees from them.

Richard Horak, G3, Biology - 

While Caltech is correct that union membership requires dues, there is context missing for when and why dues are collected. Union dues are important to allow for workers to pool their resources to successfully negotiate with multi-billion-dollar employers like Caltech. Union dues are 1.44% of gross pay with a one-time $10 initiation fee. Dues are ONLY collected after a union has formed and we have voted to ratify a contract. Additionally, there are no fines or “other costs”. To our knowledge, all higher-ed union contracts have contained wage and benefit increases which more than make up the cost of dues. 

Finally, Caltech grads and postdocs will be able to negotiate with Caltech to decide who union dues are collected from. At universities such as NYU, all workers must pay dues or an equivalent fee. However, at universities such as Columbia, union membership is opt-in and non-members do not have to pay dues but still benefit from union contracts and protections. All these specifics will be determined in contract negotiations, and then ratified by Caltech grads and postdocs.

What type of dues might you expect the UAW to charge graduate students and postdocs at Caltech if a union is formed?

It is not clear how much the union would charge Caltech graduate students and postdocs if a union is formed on campus. However, the monthly UAW dues for members of UAW Local 2865 (the union for academic student employees across the University of California system), are, on average, 1.44 percent of each individual's monthly pay.

At New York University where graduate students are organized under the UAW, students are charged 2.0 percent of total compensation during the semesters in which they are employed in a union position, and the dues are deducted from every paycheck. During semesters in which they are not employed in a union position, graduate students are still required to pay a monthly fee. In addition to the dues, there is an initiation fee of up to $50 (depending on the paygrade) when individuals first join the union.

According to UAW local 5810 (the union for postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers across the University of California system), 26.5% of dues stay with the local union chapter. The remaining 73.5% is divided between UAW operations, the UAW's strike fund, and the UAW's political activity fund. In addition, unions may raise dues periodically, so there is no way to be certain that the union dues percentage will remain the same during a student's time in the union.

Richard Horak, G3, Biology - 

Caltech is incorrect that union dues are unclear. They are unambiguously 1.44% of gross pay with a one-time initiation fee of $10. Additionally, union dues are only increased by membership action. Therefore, there will be no surprise union due raises as union members will have to vote for any increases. Caltech is correct that union dues are split between the local chapter and non-local UAW operations, however, they lack context for the use of these dues. Local union funds pay for day-to-day operations of organizing staff who train and work with local workers. The specifics on how these local funds are used can be voted on and decided by Caltech grads and postdocs. International union funds help provide bargaining expertise and legal support, and also help workers elsewhere form a union. Finally, strike and defense funds give bargaining leverage by providing financial support to support workers during a strike. Therefore, there is only one “type” of dues we will be charged and they will only be charged once we ratify a contract which will likely contain wage and benefit increases which more than make up for due costs. For more information please check out a great FAQ created by USC grad employees here:

How the Unionization Process Works

Caltech Administration’s FAQ

What they leave out

If I sign an authorization card, does that mean I have voted for the union?

No. Signing an authorization card is not the same as voting in a union election. When you sign an authorization card you are "showing an interest" in a potential union and you can still vote "no" in an election.

However, authorization cards are very difficult to revoke, especially if they have already been used as part of a showing of interest to the NLRB. Moreover, the union can present your signed cards to the NLRB without further consultation. Once a sufficient number of authorization cards are collected (as described below), an election will be held and, at that time, you may vote for or against a union.

Jessica Jacobs-Li, G2, Biology -

Signing an authorization card is a declaration of support for the formation of the union and is a crucial first step towards unionization. After a majority of our community has signed authorization cards, Caltech will have the opportunity to voluntarily recognize CGPU-UAW. In this process, a signed authorization card serves as a vote for the union. 

That said, note that Caltech has already announced that they will not voluntarily recognize our union even if a supermajority of graduate students and postdocs sign authorization cards. 

Given this decision, CGPU will need to file the authorization cards with the NLRB, a federal agency, that acts as a confidential and objective third party observer. They will verify that we have the required number of signed cards without disclosing card signers’ identities to Caltech. After the NLRB has verified that enough Caltech graduate students and postdocs have signed cards, they will host an election in which every graduate student and postdoc has the opportunity to vote. Alongside signing an authorization card, this election process is a vital step towards unionization. 

C/GPU fully supports the rights of individuals to make informed decisions at all steps of this process. If you signed a card and have concerns or second thoughts, please contact us at organize [at] cgpu [dot] org.

Who should vote in an election?

Every eligible person should vote because the outcome of a union representation election, like a U.S. political election, is determined by the majority of those who vote, not a majority of those eligible to vote. For example, if only 100 out of 500 eligible people vote, 51 voters would determine the outcome for all 500 people in the bargaining unit, as well as future graduate students and postdocs.

It is important to note that the NLRB has adopted the principle that voters who do not participate in the election assent to the will of the majority of those voting. For example, in an election at Loyola University Chicago, 120 out of 210 eligible graduate assistants voted, with 71 voting for the union and 49 voting against it. In that case, only 34 percent of eligible voters determined the outcome of the vote for all 210 students.

Alex Viloria Winnett, G4, Biology - 

The example of 20% participation is far lower than any graduate student worker and postdoctoral scholar union election in recent history. 

For example, at USC, the NLRB reports that 1721 of 2861 (60%) eligible voters participated, with 93% in favor of forming a union (NLRB Case Number 31-RC-308858). Similarly, at Johns Hopkins, 2120 of 3186 (67%) eligible voters participated, with 97% in favor (NLRB Case Number 05-RC-309139). Further, at Yale, 2039 of 3214 (63%) participated, with 91% in favor (NLRB Case Number 01-RC-305762). For postdocs, at Mt. Sinai 354 of 515 (69%) eligible voters participated, with 90% in favor (NLRB Case Number 02-RC-295559).

See also: 

Brown University

Northwestern University

Boston University

What happens if a union wins an election?

If a majority of the votes cast in the election support unionization, then Caltech and the union are obligated to begin a process called "collective bargaining." Although collective bargaining does not require parties to reach an agreement (described below), the ultimate goal of collective bargaining is for the parties to enter into a contract that defines the working conditions, hours, and wages for all individuals represented by the union. If the union wins an election, the union will be the only representative who can speak on behalf of those in the bargaining unit concerning the terms and conditions of their employment at the Institute.

Emma Cosner, G1, Chemistry -

If a majority of grad students and postdocs vote in favor of a union then the NLRB will certify our union and CGPU must be officially recognized by Caltech. The union will be the representative body for grad students and postdocs and it will be run by, of, and for grad students and postdocs.

Collective bargaining is a democratic process in which Caltech grads and postdocs elect a team of their peers, negotiate in good faith with Caltech administration, and eventually vote on whether or not to ratify any agreement before it goes into effect. Thousands of grad employees and postdocs have already won major improvements and protections through this process. You can read about some examples here, and read more about the legal requirement for both parties to bargain in good faith here.

Will graduate students and postdocs have access to a draft of the proposed contract or a list of provisions that would be negotiated prior to a vote on unionization?

No. Bargaining does not occur until after the union has won the representation election and is certified as per the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The union's agenda for bargaining is typically determined by union leadership in consultation with its members. The NLRA requires employers and unions to bargain collectively with respect to "wages, hours, and other terms of employment," which are broad concepts.

Alex Viloria Winnett, G4, Biology -

Until we elect to form a union, we cannot enter bargaining. Bargaining is an interactive process in which both sides exchange proposals on specific articles and eventually reach tentative agreement on a complete contract. Therefore, it is not possible to have a draft of a proposed contract at this stage. 

However, once we elect to form a union, grads and postdocs will 

(1) establish bylaws for our union. This will include determining the size and composition of a representative bargaining team

(2) All grads and postdocs will vote to elect their fellow Caltech graduate student workers and postdocs to that bargaining team. 

(3) Bargaining team members solicit feedback and input from all of us about what provisions to prioritize when negotiating. To get ahead of this, grads and postdocs are already providing feedback through a preliminary bargaining survey on the back of union authorization cards, through town halls, and simply through conversations with each other about common workplace issues. 

(4) Before entering bargaining, all grads and postdocs would ratify initial bargaining demands, which are broad, overarching goals for contract negotiations (see for example UC student researcher initial bargaining demands).  

(5) During the back-and-forth of bargaining, this process of soliciting feedback and input is continued, if not heightened. Bargaining team members typically give regular updates during bargaining (for example, during negotiations at UC). In many cases, bargaining meetings are open-door so members have opportunities to  participate in  negotiations (even if not elected to the bargaining team). 

(6) Any potential contract resulting from these negotiations will be made available in full for all members to vote whether or not to ratify. Usually detailed summaries of the contract are also provided. The bargaining team may endorse and make a recommendation to vote “yes” on a proposed contract, or they may make no such recommendation.

If an election results in union representation, how long will it represent the graduate students and postdocs?

Union elections are not like political elections, which happen regularly and result in limited-term appointments. Once a union is certified as the exclusive representative of a bargaining unit, it remains so indefinitely and will represent all graduate researchers and postdocs who will matriculate or join the Institute in the future. The process to decertify (or remove) a union typically also requires a vote, and it is a complex process that can take years to complete. For instance, security services workers at Harvard University recently tried to decertify their union but the request was dismissed by Region 1 of the National Labor Relations Board. (See Here for more information.)

Joshua ‘Quinn’ Morgan, G2, Applied Physics -

As grad workers at USC pointed out - There is no shortage of right-wing organizations across the US that work to decertify labor unions. Nonetheless, workers choosing to decertify is rare and unions have high levels of support. No group of academic employees who joined UAW has ever sought to decertify. The overwhelming consensus is that by unionizing, academic employees have more rights and more power to democratically seek improved working conditions.

According to the NLRB, the process of decertifying a union is not hugely different from the process of forming one and starts by showing at least 30% support in favor of decertifying. A decertification election normally cannot occur for a year after a union is certified, and normally cannot occur while a democratically ratified union contract is in effect.

Collective Bargaining

Caltech Administration’s FAQ

What they leave out

How would collective bargaining work?

Collective bargaining is typically conducted in a series of meetings at which representatives of both the union and Caltech would exchange written proposals for a collective bargaining agreement, also known as a labor contract. The negotiations for a first contract can take months and sometimes a year or more to complete. The recent collective bargaining process in the University of California schools took more than nine months and ultimately led to a six week strike before a mediated contract was agreed. At Columbia, it took four years to reach an agreement for represented graduate assistants.

During the collective bargaining process, federal labor law would require that Caltech and the union engage in good faith negotiation over terms and conditions of employment. This means the parties meet, confer, and consider each other's proposals with a genuine desire to reach an agreement. However, the duty to negotiate in good faith does not require compromise or agreement on any particular proposal and does not require the parties to reach an overall agreement.

Emma Cosner, G1, Chemistry -

A group of grad students and postdocs will be democratically elected to form a bargaining committee. They will use the information from comprehensive bargaining surveys, town halls, and direct feedback from the student body to draft initial bargaining priorities that reflect our needs. Then bargaining demands are sent to all graduate researchers and postdocs for review, and we vote on whether to approve them. The bargaining committee then negotiates with Caltech administration, as equals, and provides regular updates to all grad researchers and postdocs. If a tentative agreement is reached, all graduate students and postdocs vote to ratify the contract. If the vote is no, the bargaining team may return to negotiations. If the vote is yes, the contract becomes legally binding and we can make major strides to improving life at Caltech!

Contract negotiations at both University of California and Columbia resulted in substantial improvements for grad employees and postdocs. You can read about the UC union contracts here (academic student employees) and here (postdocs), and the Columbia contracts here (student workers) and here (postdocs). You can also read more about the requirement for both parties to bargain in good faith here.

If a union is formed and collective bargaining begins, can graduate students and postdocs receive any increases in stipends or benefits before a contract is reached?

The time period after a union is certified but before a collective bargaining agreement is reached is known as the "status quo" period. During the status quo period, Caltech would be obligated to maintain the status quo regarding terms and conditions of employment (i.e., compensation, benefits, hours, and working conditions) and would need to negotiate any changes with the union. Therefore, the parties would need to come to an agreement or reach an impasse (described below) on an overall collective bargaining agreement before Caltech could implement any changes to stipends, benefits,or other terms and conditions. As mentioned above in the question on how collective bargaining works, negotiating a first collective bargaining agreement can sometimes be a lengthy process and may result in maintenance of the status quo until a contract is reached.

Mike Greklek-McKeon, G4, Planetary Science -

Preservation of the dynamic status quo is an important protection for Caltech grads and postdocs after we file to form a union - it protects us from Caltech changing benefits or other working conditions without our mutual agreement. So, for example, if Caltech wanted to cut healthcare benefits (as they have proposed in the past), Caltech grads and postdocs could reject that proposal. On the other hand, if Caltech proposed implementing a salary increase, we could agree to have it implemented immediately.

The overall duration of contract negotiations depends on many factors, since it involves two parties (eg, Caltech grads and Caltech administration) attempting in good faith to reach an agreement. One key factor is our own participation and ability to build power to win improvements. A realistic expectation is for first contract negotiations to take somewhere between five months and a year. 

During the collective bargaining process, who would sit at the bargaining table?

Representatives of both Caltech and the union would sit at the bargaining table. Those individuals might include, on Caltech's side, labor relations professionals, administrators, and faculty members. The union would pick its own representatives.

Jasmine Emtage, G2, Biology -

Representatives of both the Caltech administration and unionized Caltech grads and postdocs would sit at the bargaining table. The union’s bargaining team would consist of a group of grads and postdocs who are democratically elected by their peers to represent the interests of the broader grad and postdoc community. To guide the bargaining teams' contract negotiations, Caltech grads and postdocs would consistently have the opportunity to give feedback on items to be included in the contract via town halls, surveys, attendance at organizational meetings, and direct conversations with more actively involved grads and postdocs. In a similar fashion to the way the administration would have the chance to receive help from labor relations professionals in their bargaining strategy, we would have the chance to utilize the knowledge and experience of UAW representatives to strengthen our bargaining as well.

How would I be able to ensure that my concerns are addressed in the collective bargaining agreement?

At this stage, it is impossible to know what would be included in a collective bargaining agreement (see above). Any promises of increases in stipends or improvements to benefits are not guaranteed; everything is subject to negotiation. The union would first need to present the Institute with its bargaining proposals, after which, the two parties (the union and the Institute) would then need to collectively bargain over terms that make sense from their respective positions.This may be a lengthy process, and federal law does not require the two parties to reach an agreement. So long as they bargain in good faith, either party is free to reject the other's proposal.

Furthermore, during this period of negotiation Caltech would be obligated to maintain the status quo regarding terms and conditions of employment (i.e. stipends, benefits, hours, and working conditions) and would need to negotiate any changes with the union.

Jessica Jacobs-Li, G2, Biology -

The bargaining process is highly participatory and will rely on the feedback of graduate students and postdocs at all steps. This includes surveys, town halls, forums, and one-on-one conversations with each other. It is absolutely crucial that everyone provides feedback and concerns during bargaining. If there is a specific way you would like to give or solicit feedback, please reach out! 

After initial bargaining demands are submitted to the Institute, representatives (elected graduate students and postdocs) will serve as a bargaining team and meet with the Institute’s representatives. Since our bargaining team will be a group of our colleagues, we will still be able to provide feedback during this process and a final contract will be voted upon by all graduate students and postdocs.

Caltech can only change current working conditions (“status quo”) during this process with the agreement of grads and postdocs. This exists as a protective measure so that Caltech does not arbitrarily decrease stipend or benefits.

What if the Institute and the Union cannot reach agreement on a contract?

Although the union and the Institute have a legal duty to bargain in good faith, it is possible that the parties may reach an "impasse" or a point in collective bargaining where further negotiation would be fruitless as neither side will move from their respective positions. Determining when the parties have reached an impasse is rarely clear cut and often leads to litigation. Yet, if an impasse is reached, the parties could resort to economic tactics. For example, the Institute would have the right to implement unilaterally its last proposal and the union may choose to engage in a work stoppage such as a strike.

Joshua ‘Quinn’ Morgan, G2, Applied Physics -

While it is true that union contract negotiations can result in impasse and no agreement being reached, this has not been the case in any recent academic employee contract negotiations. Grad Researchers and Postdocs have been successful in building participation and leverage to win strong union contracts at other institutions, you can see some examples here.

Union Representation in an Academic Setting

  Caltech Administration’s FAQ

What they leave out

What impact can a union have on academic operations?

At other universities with graduate student unions, the unionization process has impacted academic operations in many ways. For instance, at Columbia University, graduate students went on strike for 10 weeks in 2021 and, in 2022, 48,000 graduate assistants at the University of California went on strike for over a month. During such situations, students paused instructional work, grading, office hours, research, and other key graduate student functions, causing significant disruptions to the university's course load and research operations.

Similarly, as described more below, some union contracts may limit the number of hours a graduate researcher or postdoc can work in a lab which could ultimately interfere with both the student's development and the Institute's operations. 

Recent coverage in the LA Times has noted that leaders in the University of California system are now considering cutting the number of teaching assistants they employ in order to keep up with the union's requested, and ultimately agreed upon, wage increases.

Marina Lecoeuche, G2, Biology -

In ideal circumstances, a union will have no impact on academic opeartions - it’s meant instead to serve as a way for graduate students and postdocs to have a seat at the table in negotiating the terms of our contracts. A union will also allow victims of bullying, harassment, and discrimination access to a grievance process that isn’t one-sided, as is currently the case.

If Caltech negotiates contract agreements in bad faith, or fails to protect its employees from abuse, members of the union can vote to go on a strike. That being said, strikes are a tactic of last resort - most union contracts are negotiated without a strike.
In the recent UC strike, 36,558 grads, postdocs, and academic researchers voted 98% in favor of authorizing a strike in response to unfair labor practices. The strike concluded with grads, postdocs, and academic researchers all voting overwhelmingly in favor of new union contracts with historic gains (see grad contract here and postdoc contract here). Importantly, there are no examples of existing higher-ed union contracts that limit the number of hours a postdoc or grad researcher may choose to work in the lab.
Better contracts, better healthcare, and protection from abuse have great potential to improve our quality of life, and academic operations by extension.

Would Caltech be able to make exceptions to provisions in the contract to accommodate the individual needs of graduate students or postdocs in the unit?

No. Unless such exceptions are provided for in the labor contract or otherwise agreed to by the union, they are not permitted. Collective bargaining agreements focus on all members of a bargaining unit, so, as proposed in Caltech's case, all graduate students and postdocs in the unit would be treat as a collective group.

Joshua ‘Quinn’ Morgan, G2, Applied Physics -

In reviewing existing union contracts, it is hard to imagine circumstances under which an exception would be needed or beneficial. However, should an exception be needed, there is no reason CGPU-UAW (which is run by, of, and for Caltech grads and postdocs) and Caltech administration could not work it out.

Without a union, all of us are currently subject to Caltech’s existing policies. A union gives all of us more of a say in determining our working conditions.

What impact might a union have on a graduate student's academic relationships?

We cannot say for certain what would change or stay the same, but the presence of a union could make for a more regulated environment. At Caltech, we are proud to foster strong connections between our faculty advisors and their graduate students and postdocs. These flexible relationships allow our students to communicate freely and independently with their advisors, departments and/or divisions about their working conditions anytime they want. The presence of a union could impact this dynamic as an individual student's working conditions would be subject to and governed by the universal rules and requirements stipulated to in the union contract.

Simona Miller, G2, Physics -

Existing graduate student unions do not inherently impact relationships between students and their advisor. Students and postdocs are still free to communicate with advisors in the same way they did before unionizing, and maintain their own unique, personal dynamic. There is no reason to believe this would be any different at Caltech.

This being said, the reality is that many Caltech students face abuse, harassment, and/or bullying from their advisors. Being in a union means that we as graduate students will have more power to stop this behavior in cases that it does arise. 

A union will not force you to do anything you don’t want academically or interpersonally, but will simply give you more paths to take if/when hardships come up.

What if an individual graduate student or postdoc objected to a provision in the labor contract? Would they still be bound by it?

Yes. The union would speak and act for all graduate students and postdocs in a bargaining unit, and the provisions in the labor contract it negotiates would apply to all unit members. As mentioned above, individual needs or requests would not be accounted for unless agreed to by the union or provided for in the agreement.

Alex Viloria Winnett, G4, Biology -

We, grad students and postdocs at Caltech, are the union, and we would elect bargaining team representatives to represent us in formal negotiations (which are often open for other postdocs and grads to participate in). Any potential contract will be debated and voted on by Caltech grads and postdocs. It’s common for there to be healthy discussion, teach-in’s, and campaigns for and against potential contracts. 

As mentioned above, in reviewing existing union contracts it is hard to imagine circumstances under which an exception to the contract would be necessary. Union contracts address working conditions like salaries, healthcare, job security, and protections from abuse and harassment - not the day-to-day work we do in the lab. However, if such a circumstance did arise an exception could be made by mutual agreement.

For reference, these are some recent graduate student worker or post-doctoral scholar contracts:

University of California Grads

University of California Postdocs

University of Washington Grads

University of Washington Postdocs 

Columbia Grads 

Columbia Postdocs

If a union is formed, will stipends increase? What about benefits?

There is no way to know. There is a common misperception that current stipend levels, remuneration, and benefits serve as a floor and can only improve with collective bargaining. There is no guarantee that a union will obtain improvements in any area. As mentioned previously, the law does not require either a union or an employer to agree to any contract proposal; this means that employees in a union could end up with terms and conditions that are better than, the same, or worse than those currently provided.

For instance, despite going through collective bargaining, graduate students at some universities receive the same benefits as they did prior to unionization. At Columbia University, the structure of the University's health care plan was not a subject of collective bargaining and the students who were members of the bargaining unit are subject to the same health insurance benefits as graduate students who are not members of the bargaining unit. Similarly, GeorgetownUniversity's collective bargaining agreement does not include additional improvements to child care subsidies beyond what is offered to all other students. Graduate students at unionized state universities are in similar positions—the University of Michigan's collective bargaining agreement, for instance, does not provide for additional medical benefit contributions for bargaining unit students.

Simona Miller, G2, Physics -

We know of no examples where graduate employees or postdocs have lost wages or benefits as a result of unionizing. While different groups have different priorities, increased stipends and benefits are one of the consistent, primary things union members elect to advocate for in contracts. 

For example, graduate student researchers in the UC system (UAW 2865) are expected to receive up to 80% stipend increases by 2024. UC postdocs (UAW 5810) have won healthcare with 10 times lower costs than at peer universities.

You can read more about what grad employees and postdocs have achieved through collective bargaining here.

If a union is formed and students go on strike, could the visa status of international students be impacted?

There is a possibility that, if a union is formed and graduate students go on strike, the strike could have an effect on an international student's F-1 visa status. As explained in the Federal Immigration Regulations (8 CFR § 214.2(f)), foreign national students in F-1 status are required to participate in a "full course of study" in order to maintain their F-1 status,which includes on-campus employment through assistantships. (8 CFR §§ 214.2(f)(5)(i); 214.2(f)(9)(i)). Graduate students must continue to serve in that employment capacity to maintain their "full course of study." (8 CFR § 214.2(f)(9)(i)). The Federal Immigration Regulations specifically address instances of labor disputes—such as a strike—that effectively interrupt a graduate student's ability to serve in their on-campus appointment and explains that "any employment authorization, whether or not part of an academic program, is automatically suspended upon certification by the Secretary of Labor … that a strike or other labor dispute involving a work stoppage of workers is in progress in the occupation at the place of employment." 8 CFR § 214.2(f)(14). This means that F-1 visa students who are engaged in graduate teaching and research experiences and are legally prohibited from continuing to "work" in their required capacity as a result of a strike could risk fulfilling their "full course of study" to maintain their F-1 visa status. The graduate students would then be potentially subject to federal regulatory processes.

Sam Ponnada, G3, Astronomy -

A strike, if authorized, would be a democratic decision voted upon by CGPU. Such a strike is a legally protected activity under Section 13 of the National Labor Relations Act. There has been no documented case of an international student or scholar facing visa problems as a result of any of the strikes across higher-education. It’s also worth emphasizing that strikes are a last resort, and the overwhelming majority of union contracts are negotiated without striking.

It would be in extremely bad faith and disrespectful to the rights of unionized workers for Caltech to use visa status as an intimidation tool. Caltech works because of talented international students and scholars from all around the world. It would not be in the institution’s best interest for illegal and extreme retaliation measures to be taken against unionized workers expressing their right to withhold labor.

Could the hours of graduate students and postdocs be capped?

Because working hours are a mandatory subject of bargaining (i.e., an item over which the employer and a union must negotiate), caps on the number of hours graduate students or postdocs can work each week would be subject to negotiation with the union. In agreements where graduate research assistants in the sciences are included within a bargaining unit—such as at Columbia University—unions and universities have agreed that the workweek for all studentemployees, including those graduate research assistants in the sciences, should average no more than 20 hours. State universities with graduate student unions, such as the University of Washington, similarly cap hours for certain graduate assistantships, providing that appointments shall not exceed 30 hours in a given week. While these agreements allow for some flexibility, such a limitation could impact a student's ability to complete their degree program if the student needs additional hours to fulfill their program's requirements.

Ranjani Murali, postdoc, BBE -

No existing union limits the ability of grad employees or postdocs to choose to work long hours on their research, including at Columbia University and University of Washington.

CGPU-UAW is by, of, and for Caltech grad employees and postdocs. If Caltech grad students and postdocs, who are deeply committed to their work, should want flexibility in working conditions, including their working hours, this is what we will negotiate for. The purpose of unions is to provide workers with flexibility and protections. Instead of preventing us from doing work we want to do, unions will protect us from having inflexible work hours imposed on us by currently unaccountable supervisors.

What might a union prevent a graduate student or postdoc from doing?

It would depend on what is included in the labor contract and what is contained in the union's by-laws. It is important to take into account that a labor contract governs only students' or postdocs' activities within their appointments. The following are some examples of aspects the graduate student or postdoc experience that may be affected. Rules could be implemented that dictate how research or teaching assistantships are selected. It may be that faculty members retain the right to suggest researchers for their classes, for example, but it also could be that assistantships would need to be negotiated exclusively with the union, with the union deciding what it thinks is best for graduate students. Another example is that union contracts may include rules or limits on a graduate researcher's or postdoc's appointment, including appointment length, alternate appointment terms and whether the student or postdoc can move between labs or change advisors.

Sophie Hourihane, G3, Physics -

What goes into a labor contract is negotiated by the union. Since the union is formed of and run by graduate students and postdocs it is incredibly unlikely that there would be any reason, or even enforcement mechanism that the union would or could limit the activities of any researcher. Indeed, other academic unions have bargained contracts that maintain and protect flexible working conditions. For example, at one point during the COVID-19 pandemic some UC campuses wanted to require researchers who were working abroad to return to the US. Through their union contract, postdocs and grad students were able to maintain existing policies that allowed them to continue working remotely. 

On the other hand, existing union contracts do increase job security and other protections. Such a contract would have prevented former Caltech professors like Christian Ott from dropping students from his lab unjustlyCaltech is also currently limiting the ability of a graduate student to switch groups

The other situation Caltech posits is having to go through union negotiation in order to appoint a teaching assistant, research assistant, or postdoc. No existing union contract does this.

If there were a union, could graduate students and postdocs serve on departmental or Institute committees?

We don't know. It is uncertain how the existence of a union on campus would affect the role of Institute committees or advocacy groups on campus. We do know, however, that a union would be the exclusive voice to the Institute for all individuals it represents on pay, work hours, and other matters related to teaching and research assistantships. This means that other avenues of communication between graduate students and postdocs and Caltech—such as department, division, or Institute leadership committees—might be restricted or limited.

Simona Miller, G2, Physics -

We do know: institutional and department committees, student government like GSC, postdoc associations, etc. continue to exist in other unionized environments.

A union moderates our relationship with Caltech as our employer – such as salaries, benefits, and filing grievances – rather than anything related to existing groups and committees dedicated to student life and culture. These groups also play an essential role at Caltech and a union will not inherently restrict or limit their purview. 

For example, I have served on the PMA Graduate Student Advisory board for two years, and the work we do – acting as liaisons between the department and the grad students, improving the PMA first year experience, and hosting social events – will not be changed by the presence of a union.

How could a union affect the grievance process?

Based on contracts at other universities, a union would likely negotiate a contractual grievance process for issues pertaining to terms agreed to in the contract, although there is no guarantee that it would be different from or an improvement on existing procedures. For reference, union grievance procedures typically involve a formal multi-step process with strict timelines that both the union and the employer must abide by in order to have the grievance resolved. If the grievance is not resolved via the multi-step grievance procedure, the grievance can typically proceed to an arbitration.

With or without a union, we need to continue to work to foster an environment where there is open dialogue and transparency and where all graduate students and postdocs feel comfortable using a grievance process when it is needed. It is not only having a grievance process that matters; what matters even more is creating and sustaining a culture where grievances can be openly aired and resolved in a manner that is consistent with our academic values and principles.

Fayth Tan, G5, Biology -

Current university grievance processes allow Caltech as an institution to have unilateral decision-making power and oversight over their outcome. All the parties involved in the grievance process now—the Graduate Office, the Title IX office, HR, and the Office of Research Policy—have an inherent conflict of interest as they all have a vested interest in maintaining the interests of the Institute, whether reputational, financial or legal. We deserve a grievance process in which our best interests are represented. 

While current university policy does not allow for peer advocates, union contracts have ensured the right to have a peer advocate from the union present during both union grievance processes and university reporting procedures such as Title IX. Peer advocates can act as witnesses to prevent coercion or inappropriate questioning during the grievance process and assistance in navigating and negotiating complicated bureaucracy and university policy.

Another significant protection that has been secured in union contracts is the right to third party arbitration. If resolution cannot be reached or you object to the findings of an official investigation, arbitration can be brought to a neutral third party, who is agreed upon by both the Institute and the union. 

The benefits of a union in resolving sexual harassment and discrimination cases has been shown many times. Take, for example, this case from UConn. A graduate student’s previously dismissed harassment claim was filed, with help from her union, with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, a state organization separate from the University. The student, who would have otherwise left the program and the US, graduated successfully and could remain in the country.

In short, a union grievance process ensures that our voices are heard. It makes the process more equitable and transparent, and allows often vulnerable researchers to hold institutions accountable for their actions.

Can a union bargain over student fees?

It is not clear whether student fees are a matter over which a union may require a university to bargain since these fees are charged to all students—graduate and undergraduate—regardless of whether they serve as graduate researchers.Even if a union is able to bargain over the amount charged for student fees, it could not bargain over how those studentfees are allocated.

Ruby Byrne, postdoc, Astronomy -

Unions absolutely can and do bargain over student fees. For example, when I was a graduate student at the University of Washington and member of UAW 4121, we successfully bargained to reduce student fees. We eliminated the discriminatory International Student Fee, a fee levied only on international students that cost $135 per year. We also eliminated a required transit pass fee that was charged of all students, regardless of whether or not they used public transportation. Instead, all graduate students now receive free transit passes. Furthermore, we successfully bargained a contract that explicitly prohibits the university from imposing new fees outside of bargaining, eliminating the previous status quo in which they could unilaterally levy new fees at their discretion. More information is available here and here.

Many state universities have unions. Would their experiences apply at Caltech?

Not necessarily. There are two reasons why comparisons to state universities are difficult. First, unions at state universities are governed by the applicable state labor law, while private universities such as Caltech are governed by federal labor law. Many states have written into their labor laws provisions that protect academic decisions from the collective bargaining process. Thus, there are protections in the applicable state law that prevent unions from interfering in academic matters at public universities, such as limitations on striking activities. Federal labor law does not address the needs of higher education, so such protections are not currently included in federal law. As a result, there is more leeway for unions to attempt to be involved in academic matters (e.g., research assistant assignments) at private universities. This does not mean that unions will be involved in these matters at private universities; it simply means that they may ask to do so.

Alex Viloria Winnett, G4, Biology -

In addition to many state universities, grad student workers and postdocs at many private universities have also formed unions - such as Columbia, Harvard, MIT, USC, Yale, Brown, Northwestern, Northeastern, Duke, Boston University, NYU, and numerous others. 

In California, collective bargaining for academic employees at public universities is not significantly different from collective bargaining at private universities. In both cases, parties are required to bargain in good faith to attempt to reach a union contract. In both cases, union strikes are legally protected and regulated. The specific entity that oversees labor regulations varies by whether the institution is public (the PERB, or Public Employment Relation Board) or private (the NLRB, or National Labor Relations Board). 

Every campus is different. What aspects of our working conditions we, as Caltech grad student workers and post-docs, choose to negotiate will be dependent on what matters to us here. 

Graduate Student and Postdoc Support

Caltech Administration’s FAQ

What they leave out

What is the current process if a graduate student or postdoc wants to report a grievance, misconduct issue, or policy violation?

Caltech provides a safe and secure environment for all members of the Caltech community, including graduate students and postdocs. We expect all members of the community to adhere to Caltech's community statement of ethical conduct,and to act with integrity and in a manner that reflect our community's shared values.

Caltech encourages any member of the community who becomes aware of misconduct or a policy violation to report it.Graduate students and postdocs may reach out to the Office of Research Policy for any suspected research misconduct, the Title IX and Equity Office for identity-based discrimination or harassment, and Human Resources for any workplace related grievance; and the Office of the General Counsel for all of the above. Individuals may also anonymously report concerns through an online reporting form managed by the Institute's Audit and Compliance unit orthrough the Title IX and Equity Office.

In an instance where there may be a violation of the Institute's Sex- and Gender-based Misconduct and UnlawfulHarassment policies, members of the community may also access

confidential resources who can help them to explore their options for addressing a grievance, misconduct issue or policy violation and to offer support while they decide what action to take.

Furthermore, postdoctoral scholars may reach out to the faculty representative for the postdoctoral affairs committee,their division chair, or the vice provost for research, and graduate students may reach out to the Graduate Dean's Officeor their division chair with any concern or problem they are facing. Detailed information about these resources are provided during orientation and are included in the Institute and student policies online and detailed below.

Institute Policies

-Conflicts of Interest
-Disability and Reasonable Accommodation
-Environment, Health, and Safety
-Nondiscrimination and Equal Employment Opportunity
-Sex- and Gender-Based Misconduct
-Substance Abuse
-Unlawful Harassment
-Violence Prevention
-Whistleblower Policy
-Student Affairs Policies
-Alcohol and Other Drugs
-Fire Safety
-Good Samaritan
-Hazing Prevention
-Liquid Nitrogen (LN2) Policy and Protocols
-Missing Person
-Mural Policy in Caltech Houses
-Personal Privacy and Intellectual Property
-Student Health and Hygiene Policies
-Student Problem Resolution Process

Kriti Sharma, postdoc, Geobiology -
According to the Caltech Course Catalog under “Student Problem Resolution Process”, graduate students are advised to take their grievances to the appropriate dean – usually the Dean of Graduate Studies – who will appoint a facilitator to resolve the issue if the Dean deems it necessary. According to the Postdoctoral Scholars Handbook, postdocs are encouraged to take grievances to HR (primarily, or to the Vice Provost or Director of Research Compliance). If the grievance could be classified specifically as gender-based harassment or discrimination, grads and postdocs can take it to Caltech’s Title IX Office. In all of these cases, Caltech employees – the Dean, HR, Title IX officers, or Provost or other administrators – are the final decision-makers over the grievance. Without a union, Caltech has unilateral and total oversight and decision-making power in the grievance process. 

Union contracts at other institutions seek to improve upon this process with provisions like the right to having a union representative throughout the grievance process. Further protections against abuse, bullying, discrimination, and harassment can be written into the union contract, including the right to independent third-party arbitration and interim measures. The existence of a formalized grievance process, in which both the Union and Caltech are equal, can lead to better outcomes and greater accountability. 

How are graduate students and postdocs currently able to engage with the university administration on matters of wages, benefits, and working conditions?

Graduate students and postdocs have multiple means—both formal and informal—by which they interact directly with the administration to collaborate and discuss issues important to them. In the last several years, graduate student and postdoc community members have worked successfully and effectively with academic and administrative leaders to address matters related to the cost of living, stipends, health benefits, childcare resources and parental support benefits, Title IX policies and procedures, campus safety, and faculty-student mentorship and advising.

This work has been enabled through student government, student-faculty committees, the graduate deans and postdoc offices, and student advocacy. Some examples of the available touchpoints include:

-Graduate Student Council leaders meet monthly with the Vice President for Student Affairs and Graduate Dean in meetings where the students set the agenda;
-Graduate Student Council leaders meet monthly with the Office of Residential Experience and Student Affairsleaders charged with supporting and fostering an inclusive and enriching campus experience;
-The Postdoctoral Scholars Committee, which includes representatives from the administration (Vice Provost forResearch), faculty (faculty representative for postdoctoral affairs from each division), and leadership of the CaltechPostdoc Association meets quarterly to discuss all issues of concern to the postdoctoral scholars;
-The president of the Caltech Postdoc Association meets one-on-one regularly (often several times a term) with theVice Provost for Research to discuss issues of concern to the postdoc community;
-Graduate student and postdoc representatives are appointed to attend monthly faculty board meetings and are invited to sit on and represent the perspective and views of graduate students and postdocs on faculty committees that advise on health benefits, athletics and physical education, foreign students and scholars, institute programs,the library, patents and relations with industry, and postdoctoral scholar training and experience;
-Members of the graduate student community serve on the Student Experience Committee of the Caltech Board ofTrustees;
-Graduate students and postdocs are invited to serve on ad-hoc Institute committees and task forces as new areas of focus emerge.

In addition to their formal involvement in the university's governance and decision-making and advisory bodies, some of which are mentioned above, graduate students and postdocs also benefit from informal, direct access to leadership and faculty advisors. Many members of the administration, including the associate graduate dean, the graduate dean, the vice president for student affairs, the provost, and the president, among others, meet regularly with graduate student and postdoc representatives; some also hold regular open office hours where individuals or groups of students may meet with them personally and without a pre-stated agenda.

Korbi Thalhammer, G3, Geochemistry -

Grads and postdocs can join campus clubs and advocacy groups and entities like the Graduate Student Council or the Caltech Postdoctoral Association. These requests are considered by the administration, who is ultimately the final and unilateral decision-maker on questions of wages, benefits, and working conditions. Grads and postdocs can present their case, but have no legal negotiating power.

Many students and postdocs helping to form CGPU are also part of the Grad Student Council or the Caltech Postdoc Association. While we all agree that these organizations have, and should continue to have, an important role to play they do not have the same power to collectively bargain as a union would.