Frequently Asked Questions

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What is UMaine Graduate Workers Union (UMGWU)?

We are graduate student workers forming a union in order to improve our research and working conditions across the University of Maine System (UMaine). The work that graduate workers do across the UMaine System as research assistants (RAs), teaching assistants (TAs), and graduate assistants (GAs) not only drives the academic mission of the UMaine System and the R1 status of the Orono campus, but also produces knowledge that can benefit the greater community. While we work across many specializations, our dedication to our work unites us all.

By forming a graduate worker union, we can build a stronger, more democratic voice for us at UMaine, with more power to negotiate for improvements and to secure our rights and conditions into a legally-binding contract.

Forming a union with the United Auto Workers (UAW) in particular means joining tens of thousands of graduate workers and other higher education employees who are already part of the UAW–this includes student workers and other academic workers at Harvard University, Columbia University, University of Connecticut, University of Massachusetts, University of California, and University of Washington. By working together with these and other academic unions across the country, we can also build political power beyond UMaine to impact funding policies at the national, state, and local levels that shape our experience in Academia.

Why are graduate student workers forming a union at UMaine?

Forming a union with collective bargaining rights is the only way we have the power to negotiate on equal footing with the university administration and secure agreements in a legally-binding contract. Forming a union and joining with tens of thousands of other UAW academic workers will also help us have a stronger voice on key policy decisions made outside the institute that affect us as researchers, such as federal funding for scientific research and federal rules affecting visa and immigrant issues.

By joining with unionized academic workers nationwide we hope to make changes that will create more positive work environments for future graduate workers and improve career pathways for future faculty and scientists in the US and beyond.

What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is a process, protected by law, that equalizes the power relationship between employees and their employer.

Under collective bargaining, UMaine graduate workers would elect representatives to negotiate on equal footing with the UMaine Administration and put the terms of our employment into a legally binding contract. Through collective bargaining, graduate workers and other academic workers in the UAW have successfully negotiated improved wages and benefits, stronger protections against discrimination and harassment, expanded family-friendly benefits like paid leave and childcare subsidies, and other important provisions.

Without a union, UMaine has unilateral power to change our conditions or decide whether or not to make improvements. For example, UMaine decides unilaterally whether or not to make sure our salaries keep up with the cost of living in Maine.

Why did we choose the UAW?

Graduate workers began to organize as a response to the unfair working conditions across many disciplines, including unfair workloads, insufficient pay, inadequate health coverage, and the lack of transparency in administrative communication. We realized that we could make even more progress by negotiating as equals with UMaine over our working conditions.

The UAW represents more than 100,000 academic workers across the United States, including more graduate student employees and postdocs than any other union. In the last eight years alone over 40,000 academic workers around the country have chosen to become part of the UAW.

The UAW has particular experience with helping to negotiate and enforce strong student worker contracts. Most recently, student workers at Columbia University in NYC voted by 96.7% to ratify their first contract with a majority participating. Harvard student workers approved their contract in 2021.

The University of California recognized Student Researchers United-UAW as representative for more than 17,000 workers, after a supermajority of UC student researchers signed cards selecting SRU-UAW as their union.  Through collective bargaining drawing on the UAWʼs wide experience bargaining contracts with university administrators, and through collective action by graduate workers they were able to win 25-80% increases in pay in their first union contract, as well as many other improvements. We can also exercise a stronger political voice through the UAW. With active members at more than 45 major campuses across the US, the UAW has become a strong advocate on policy issues that matter to us as academics, such as federal support for science funding and enhancing the rights of international research scientists.

What is the difference between the Graduate Student Government (GSG) and a union?

Both a strong union and a student government can play an important role in improving the lives of UMaine student workers. GSG is an institute sponsored and supported student body that makes it possible for graduate workers to participate in numerous social and career development opportunities as well as advocacy efforts; however, it is not an alternative to a union.

While GSG can make recommendations to the administration on behalf of graduate workers, it cannot engage in collective bargaining. Unions and associations like the GSG often work together at academic institutions where both exist.

Once we form a union, how do we participate in the process?

UMaine graduate student workers across the entire University of Maine System make up our union. After UMGWU-UAW has been recognized by the UMaine System, we will start to engage in the process of negotiating a contract with the administration:

  1. We elect a bargaining committee from among UMaine System graduate student workers.
  2. Based on surveys we have filled out, the committee will develop initial bargaining goals; we vote to ratify these goals.
  3. The committee will meet with UMaine System administration representatives to negotiate in pursuit of our bargaining goals.
  4. When our committee has negotiated a tentative agreement with the UMaine System they feel they can recommend, graduate workers will vote whether to ratify it as our first contract.
  5. The bargaining committee will be aided throughout by experienced negotiators and our regional UAW representatives.

After the contract is ratified, the membership will elect representatives who help run the Local Union, work to ensure that the UMaine System does not violate the terms of the contract, and represent members with grievances and other workplace issues.

Will international students benefit from joining the UAW?

With roughly 100,000 academic workers, the UAW has become a powerful organization advocating to improve conditions for international students and scholars. For years, the UAW has fought hard to ensure that the contributions of guest workers are elevated and that the terms and conditions of their employment are improved. Recently the UAW helped lead the fight against Executive Orders issued by former President Trump that targeted international students and scholars.

In October of 2020, UAW Academic Workers mobilized against a proposed rule by ICE to shorten visa stays for international scholars; thousands of public comments were submitted, including by the President of the UAW International. In July of 2020, thanks to direct action by UAW Academic Workers across the country, in addition to efforts by allies at universities and in government, ICE backed down from its directive to deport international students taking online classes due to COVID-19. In 2017, the UAW International filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case challenging the Trump administrationʼs travel ban. The UAW also helped lead the fight to enhance the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program as an important path for international student workers to work in the US after completion of their PhD.

UAW academic unions also provide more resources for researchers on visas at the local level. Columbia University postdocs have used their union to fight for international researchers who could not return to the US during the

COVID-19 pandemic to be able to work remotely and, more recently, put pressure on the Columbia administration and engaged allies in Congress to support researchers stranded abroad.

What are the rights of international students to join the union?

International student workers have the same legal right to join a union as US citizens. International employees have been instrumental in organizing and running the student worker unions at Harvard University, Columbia University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, University of Connecticut, University of Massachusetts, University of California, University of Washington, and New York University. Unionization can result in protections that are especially valuable for international academic employees.

Can UMaine retaliate against me or put my visa at risk for participating in a union?

It is illegal in the US for your employer to take action or retaliate against you for unionizing, and Maine state law protects the right of UMaine System employees to join and form unions.

You have the right to unionize regardless of immigration status. Student workers have been forming unions for decades with significant international student participation throughout those campaigns. In those years, none have reported problems with their visa as a result of their organizing effort.

Additionally, the purpose of forming a union is that we gain the ability to stand up for each other. If a graduate worker was targeted for participating in the union, the rest of the community would stand up and call on the administration to stop that type of behavior. It is our right as workers to make this decision collectively, and it is inappropriate for an administrator to use threats and intimidation to discourage us from making that choice.

What are union dues and when would we start paying?

Membership dues are important because they provide the resources necessary for effective representation. In the UAW, we do not pay dues until we have gone through the bargaining process and voted democratically to approve our first contract. Dues are critical for providing us with independent resources that are not controlled by the University: we use them to ensure we have appropriate legal, bargaining, community and staff support to represent all graduate student workers. UAW membership dues are currently 1.44% of gross monthly income and can only be increased by membership action (the membership in a few local unions, for example, have voted to increase dues above 1.44% to have more resources).


The value of increased wages and benefits in the first contract typically outweighs the cost of dues, often leading to overwhelming majority approval of those agreements. And while – under current law – no one can be required to be a member or pay union dues/fees at public institutions like UMaine, a strong majority of public university academic workers typically sign up as members because it builds a stronger voice for all, enables effective representation under the contract, and provides resources to help other workers organize their own unions. By forming our union we are building graduate worker power to improve our working conditions, and having the shared resources of dues is an important piece of that power.

Where would our union dues go?

It takes resources to have a strong union, from the earliest stages of forming a union for the first time, to bargaining and campaigning for the first contract, to enforcing rights under an existing contract, and advocating on policy issues that matter to membership. Dues provide those resources. See below for more information.

Dues generally cover all of the day to day cost of having a strong union, including paying for the best legal representation, staffing, rent, equipment, and supplies.

Most of the day-to-day work enforcing the contract and representing our membership is provided by the Local Union. Under the UAW Constitution, the Local Union automatically keeps 27% of dues money to support its expenses: staffing for representation, rent, equipment, supplies, etc. The rest of the dues is allocated to the International Unionʼs General Fund (26%), Strike and Defense Fund (44%), and Community Action Program (CAP) (3%). UMaine graduate workers would be supported by these funds as described below. Depending on the overall financial health of the Strike and Defense Fund (if its net worth is $500M or greater), an additional allocation of dues called a “rebate” is given back to the Local and International Union. So, in typical months, the portion of dues retained by the local union is roughly 37%.

For some great examples of UAW local unions helping workers defend their rights, see this summary of successful grievance handling at the University of Washington, or these stories about unionized postdocs fighting pregnancy discrimination at the University of California, or how graduate assistants at UConn took on sexual harassment.

The portion of dues allocated to the International Union would support UMaine graduate workers in the following ways:

  • Technical experts to help negotiate on equal terms with UMaine;
  • Health insurance experts who can take on the Universityʼs consultants in order to pursue the best benefits for the best price;
  • Researchers who can help analyze University finances;
  • Legal advice where necessary;
  • Experienced negotiators to help achieve our goals, both at the bargaining table and in terms of developing an overall campaign to win a strong contract;
  • Support for new organizing campaigns (for example, the resources supporting UMGWU come from existing UAW membersʼ dues);
  • Political action: 3 percent of dues go toward the UAW Community Action Program (CAP), which supports progressive community and political action, including legislative and other policy advocacy on issues that matter to UAW members.  For example, the UAW advocates strongly for fair, comprehensive immigration reform and expanded federal support for research funding, among other topics. [NOTE: legally, dues money cannot be used for federal campaign contributions, such as the presidential race—that money comes from membersʼ voluntary contributions to the UAW Voluntary Community Action Program or V-CAP, which is separate from, and in addition to, dues.]
Will we have to strike?

Public sector workers in Maine (which includes graduate workers in the UMaine System) are prohibited from striking. And while the use of a strike is a powerful tool for many workers, it is far from the only form of collective action that workers can take. Many unions, including unions of graduate workers and other academic workers, can and do win significant improvements without choosing to go on strike and/or without a protected right to strike. We will have at our disposal many forms of collective action, political pressure, and other ways to elevate our demands and win the workplace improvements that graduate workers need.

Where will the money come from for pay increases?

Currently, the UMaine administration determines our pay rates and benefits unilaterally, and those rates – as well as projected increases – are factored into grant proposals to agencies like the NIH, NSF, and other funding sources. With collective bargaining, we would negotiate as equals with UMaine for improvements to our pay rates, which would continue to be factored into grant proposals. Student workers at Columbia University, the University of Washington, the University of California, as well as Harvard University have negotiated guaranteed annual increases to their pay rates through collective bargaining, while the number of unionized student workers at each of these campuses has continued to rise.

Will having a union damage my relationship with my PI/Advisor?

After decades of collective bargaining at more than 60 campuses across the US, no one has produced evidence that unionization has damaged faculty-graduate student relationships. Additionally, a recent study has shown that having a union has little to no impact on the advisor-student relationship. This topic often comes up in the context of administrators trying to convince workers they shouldnʼt have a union, without evidence.

My PI does not have a lot of money. Will a union hurt our PIs or lead to fewer positions?

At other institutions where student workers have unions, collective bargaining has not produced these results. Because all union decisions will be made by the student workers, we will collectively decide what to ask for in bargaining at UMaine.

And, as a union, we can request UMaine financial information that affects graduate workers, which will make it possible for us to be well-informed and conscientious as we engage in bargaining. Both the union membership and the administration have to agree on a contract and neither party would want a result that hurts the quality research happening at UMaine. Collective bargaining simply means we can negotiate as equals in order to hold UMaine more accountable to do the best it can do.

Empirically, the overall number of RAs and TAs has grown at the University of Washington since unionization, as has the number of student workers at the University of California, Harvard University and Columbia University. Overall grant revenue has also increased at UW and UC over those years, showing that these institutions remain competitive in recruiting top talent to their research programs.

In addition, many PIs appreciate working with unionized researchers, because a union contract means PIs do not have to individually negotiate every term and condition of employment (from wages to health care to leave to childcare to non-discrimination protections to vacation to appointment letter terms, etc) and instead can focus on their research.

Does everyone in a union have to make the same amount?

No UAW union for academic workers has negotiated a contract that requires all covered employees to make the same amount. And, because we as graduate workers will make our own decisions about our contract, we would likely not negotiate for or vote to approve a contract that requires all graduate workers to be paid the same. As an example, we could propose a wage structure like the one that student workers at the Harvard bargained that includes:

  1. A minimum salary;
  2. Guaranteed annual wage increases;
  3. The right of PIs to pay above the scale; and
  4. Strong enforcement provisions that enable us to grieve through the union if we donʼt receive contractual pay increases.
I heard an administrator say if we unionize and negotiate pay increases, we might have fewer jobs overall.

Collective bargaining at other universities has not produced this result. Because all union decisions will be made by graduate student workers, we will collectively decide what to ask for in bargaining. And, as a union, we can request UMaine’s financial information that affects student workers, which will make it possible for us to be well-informed and conscientious as we engage in bargaining.

It is a common misconception that by bargaining for improved working conditions, unions make it too expensive to employ workers. In reality, higher education unions have advocated for increased higher education and science funding while securing improved working conditions.

Finally, we have more power to protect jobs through collective action and a legally-binding contract. Most collective bargaining agreements prohibit the employer from terminating positions due to arbitrary or discriminatory reasons, or to take action that is inconsistent with job offers that were accepted by the employee. Not only would we be able to act collectively, but we would have the full backing of the many unionized employees on campus, UAW members across the northeast, and the larger UAW International Union.

Would I be included in the graduate worker union?

UMaine Graduate Workers Union (UMGWU-UAW) seeks to represent any graduate students who receive compensation for work in research assistant (RA), teaching assistant (TA, and graduate assistant (GA) positions in the University of Maine System.