Emory University graduate students attempting to unionize will hold a historic union election next week after filing their petition on Aug. 25 with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
After drumming up support over the past year, the EmoryUnite! organizers need a simple majority vote from Emory’s 1,722 graduate-student workers to unionize under the umbrella of the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU). If they succeed, they’ll become the first union of graduate student workers in Georgia.
For an update on the election preparations, Atlanta Civic Circle spoke with three EmoryUnite! members: David Meer, Nathan Goldberg and Elijah Ullman.
Meer, a co-chair of EmoryUnite!, joined the union just over a year ago. He said the grad students have not yet delivered specific demands or negotiation points to Emory leadership. “We have not begun any discussions on contract negotiations, and that’s on purpose,” said the third-year Ph.D. candidate in physics.
EmoryUnite! has stated broadly that members want a living wage, fair compensation for the many jobs they do on campus, better working conditions, and affordable healthcare. But Goldberg, who also joined the union last year, said organizers are being careful to avoid specifics in an attempt to stop Emory from preemptively discussing demands before the union is official.
“Obviously, there will be negotiations if we win the election,” said Goldberg, a third-year art history Ph.D. candidate. “But at the same time, I think a crucial thing is that there will actually be democratic representation of graduate students with the administration.”
Pushback from Emory leadership
The EmoryUnite! organizers said they haven’t received much direct pushback from Emory’s leadership in the month since they filed for election. “[Emory leaders] have made sure to emphasize that people have the right to choose whether to take part in conversations about the union,” said Meer. “But it’s not like they’re telling the faculty to shut things down.”
Meer added that Emory’s leadership did resurrect an anti-union FAQ created in 2016, which refers to unions as a third party who would get in the way of change at the university–a common anti-union talking point for employers.
“They never deleted the page [on Emory’s website], and they resurfaced it after the card drive,” said Meer.
“They’ve cleaned it up a bit, but it still doesn’t paint us in the best light,” Meer added.
Emory’s current FAQs about Ph.D. student unionization. makes a distinction between public universities, where graduate student unions have become common, and private ones like Emory, which are far less unionized. “A Ph.D. student union at Emory risks blurring the lines between academic and other decisions. Disagreements between Ph.D. students at other universities have led to significant labor disputes, such as strikes or lockouts,” Emory warns.
Next week’s EmoryUnite! election will be held in mid-October at polling locations on Emory’s campus for most graduate students. According to EmoryUnite!’s FAQs, the NLRB will send ballots to students who reside outside of Atlanta. Mail-in ballots are due Nov. 8, and the NLRB will count all ballots right after.
As the organizers make their final election preparations, they seem confident. Ullman, who joined EmoryUnite! in June 2022, expressed optimism.
“25 out of 26 grad student unions that have filed have won, based on the numbers I’ve seen,” said Ullman, a 5th-year Ph.D. candidate in molecular systems and pharmacology. “So I feel pretty darn good.”