The Graduate Employees Union is a union of state employees (Teaching Assistants at a public university). This means that the rules regarding us are particular, and may be at odds with how unions are run in other states or in the private sector. So here is a bit of a rundown of how that works:
There are broadly three categories of workers in the United States (it can get more tenuous than this, but it works in broad strokes): Federal Employees, State Employees and Private Employees. Each of these categories of worker can unionize, but the process is different, and who exactly can unionize in each varies, especially for state employees. Federal employees are those people employed by the federal government, like postal workers, social security administrators, and the like. State workers are individuals hired by states like Michigan or New York. These include prison guards, police, teachers, administrative assistants, and public university professors. Private employees are hired by businesses, non profits, and other organizations.
Federal Employees are employed by the federal government and form unions either through the National Mediation Board or in the case of Postal Workers through the National Labor Relations Board. Private Employees unionize through the National Labor Relations Board. State employees are not covered by federal law in terms of unionization and states have broad leeway in how unions form for state employees. Some states do not allow employees to unionize (collectively bargain) at all and so unions are less able to directly negotiate, for example, in Texas. In some states only restricted employees (generally police and firefighters) can unionize or collectively bargain (since the election of Scott Walker Wisconsin operates this way). In other states, nearly all public employees can unionize (for example, in Connecticut where RAs and TAs are unionized at UConn). This broad leeway means the particular political climate has a lot to do with who is or is not unionized.
A final note: While this is not necessarily the case for public institutions, generally an employer can recognize a union with 50% support without having to go through an election procedure. This has happened in the case of NYU (for example) where the graduate union there was formed in spite of the fact that the NLRB has not (as of the time of this writing) ruled that graduate assistants are employees.
Which Graduate Assistants can unionize?
As the above makes clear, this question is not straightforward.
In the private sector, the general rule is that no graduate assistants can unionize. This is because the NLRB ruled in 2004 that graduate assistants can not unionize in the case of Brown University. There has since been only one graduate employee union recognized at a private university, namely, at NYU where it was unilaterally recognized by the university. However, as Obama appointees now control the NLRB, it is widely expected that students at Columbia university will win the right to organize, at which point students may unionize nationwide. Update 8/23/2016: As of August 23, 2016 the NLRB has ruled in Columbia that graduate assistants, both TAs and RAs, are eligible to unionize and we expect to see many more unions at private universities.
For public universities, this again varies state by state. In Connecticut and New York, students in roles as Teaching and Research assistantships can unionize. In Michigan, Teaching Assistants have been able to unionize for some time under the Public Employee Relations Act (PERA). There was for some time a question as to if Research Assistants could unionize, but when RA’s at the University of Michigan were considering unionizing, the law was changed to forbid RA’s from unionizing. This law was later overturned for having been passed in violation of the open meetings act. The Michigan Employee Relations Council (MERC) then dominated by Snyder appointees made a ruling that RA’s could not unionize. Finally in 2014 the legislature passed a law forbidding student athletes from unionizing which also included the language previously passed forbidding RAs from unionizing. As such only TAs may unionize at public universities in Michigan until the law is changed.
How would we unionize as RAs?
If the law were to change, RAs could unionize by holding an election through MERC. Strictly speaking if a majority of people had signed an application for a union representation, it is possible for the university to accept the application unilaterally. However, as this is unlikely, instead an election can be held. This would require at least 30% of RAs be interested in an election and must state which union they wish to join. After this MERC will begin a process to check the petition’s validity and afterwards will hold an election at some time and date. The election is held and if the majority of RAs (or other employees considering unionization) vote in favor of unionizing, this will cause the employees to form a collective bargaining unit and be unionized.