Emory graduate students vote to unionize

Union vote for students who teach and conduct research follows similar move at Duke
About 4,300 graduating students await at Emory's quadrangle for the ceremony to begin during Emory University's 178th Commencement ceremony on Monday, May 8, 2023.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

About 4,300 graduating students await at Emory's quadrangle for the ceremony to begin during Emory University's 178th Commencement ceremony on Monday, May 8, 2023. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Doctoral students at Emory University, whose role typically includes teaching as well as study and research, have voted overwhelmingly to join a union.

In a 909-73 vote, the student-workers agreed to join Workers United, which is part of the Service Employees International Union, according to the labor group and university. The grad students would be the only organized labor group at Emory, a university spokeswoman said.

The vote, conducted by the National Labor Relations Board, was announced Tuesday but is not yet certified.

It made Emory the second grad school at a private university in the South to vote for a union, said Chris Baumann, director of Workers United Southern Region. Emory is Georgia’s largest private university.

Georgia, like most southern states, has historically had a lower share of the workforce represented by unions. The state also has laws that let employees in union shops skip paying union dues, while requiring the union to represent their interests in any dispute.

Union representation in Georgia further declined over many decades amid the loss of textile manufacturing and the closure of the General Motors and Ford factories in the Atlanta area.

But in recent years, unions have made a renewed push into service industries in Georgia to boost their ranks. Unions also have eyed Georgia’s growth in clean energy and electric vehicle manufacturing as potential work groups to organize.

Emory, unlike many employers faced with an organizing campaign, did not try to influence the process, Baumann said. “We were really happy to see Emory remain neutral. We tip our hat to Emory that they let their workers have the space to make their own decision.”

Negotiations could start early next year, he said.

“We would hope that the same relationship we forged during the election — where they were professional and businesslike — would continue and they would take the next stop and bargain in good faith,” he said. “So, we would hope that we can get it done sometime next semester.”

In a memo to doctorate students Tuesday, Ravi V. Bellamkonda, Emory’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, said the administration will begin the collective bargaining process once the National Labor Relations Board certifies the results, which is expected within about a week.

A university spokeswoman provided a copy of the memo to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and said it would serve as Emory’s statement on the issue.

“Emory respects the outcome of the vote, and we are committed to bargaining in good faith with the Union as your representative consistent with our mission, vision and values,” Bellamkonda wrote. “We are—and always will be—committed to providing a top-quality education and student-centered experience that supports your success.”

Nearly half of Emory’s 16,000 students are in grad school, but the vote affected only the 1,674 who are in the Ph.d program.

Bellamkonda said Emory will update with more information the website it created to respond to questions about the unionizing effort. He also encouraged students “to continue learning about Workers United-SEIU and making sure your voices are heard and represented by them during the bargaining process.”

Currently, the minimum stipend for doctoral students is $36,376 annually, up 6% from last year, according to Emory. Stipends vary by program, with business students receiving the most at $40,000 a year.

Other benefits include a 100% paid health insurance subsidy, tuition and professional development funds, according to Emory.

On a website created by the university to address the unionization efforts, the school said there’s no guarantee that negotiations will lead to higher stipends.

The first grad students in the South to unionize were those at Duke University who approved a union in August. Administrators and union representatives at Duke started negotiating toward a contract earlier this month, Baumann said.