The past few years have seen a noticeable growth in union organizing drives, particularly among workers with insecure and often short-term employment, such as fast-food workers, coffee shop “baristas,” food delivery and “ride share” drivers, and others performing “gig” work.

But gig workers aren’t the only ones organizing themselves for collective bargaining: graduate and professional students are a prominent part of this trend. In early June 2023, for example, the residents and fellows at hospitals in the Mass General Brigham system, by a vote of 1,215 to 415, elected to be represented by the Committee of Interns and Residents (CIR), a part of the Service Employees International Union. Some months earlier, graduate students at Yale University voted by a margin of 1,860 to 179 to be represented by UNITE HERE. In March, graduate students at the University of Chicago elected to unionize by a vote of 1,695 to 155. Similarly, after voting by a margin of 61 percent to decline representation in 2012, graduate students at the University of Minnesota by a vote of 2,487 to 70 elected to unionize in April. In 2018, Georgetown University, guided in part by Catholic social principles, voluntarily agreed to allow their graduate students to vote on union representation, and the parties agreed to their first collective bargaining agreement in 2020.

But gig workers aren’t the only ones organizing themselves for collective bargaining: graduate and professional students are a prominent part of this trend.


Catholic social thought has always given unwavering support to employee associations and unions. In light of this and the Catholic understanding of the university, how might one think about the desirability of graduate student unions?

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

Collective Bargaining

To understand unions, however, one must understand collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is a private lawmaking system: it promulgates and adjusts the law governing one of the most important modern relationships, employment. The employer-employee relationship is a crucial and highly consequential part of people’s life. For most people, employment serves as their chief claim on wealth, status, and the necessities of life, including, for Americans, healthcare.

American labor law, at both the state and federal levels, sanctions a voluntary negotiating system for creating the law to govern the employment relationship, but leaves the outcomes achieved through the bargaining process solely to the parties’ determination. This system of “free” collective bargaining minimizes state intervention in the character of the order the parties establish for themselves. The German legal scholar and sociologist Gunther Teubner terms this a “reflexive” legal scheme, the goal of which is “regulated autonomy” or minimally controlled self-regulation. The Supreme Court has characterized the collective bargaining agreement as not just a contract, but “a generalized code” that represents “an effort to erect a system of industrial self-government” through which the employment relationship can be “governed by an agreed-upon rule of law.”

Nothing in American labor law or in Catholic social thought limits collective bargaining to industrial or service workers. In fact, as demonstrated by the organization of medical residents and fellows mentioned earlier, the National Labor Relations Act and most state labor relations statutes explicitly provide for organization by members of professional and learned groups. This is consistent with Catholic social teaching. In speaking about the importance of unions in his encyclical Laborem exercens (1981), for example, John Paul II teaches that “organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies. Obviously, this does not mean that only industrial workers can set up associations of this type. Representatives of every profession can use them to ensure their own rights.” Since the first social encyclical, Rerum novarum (1891), the Church has consistently taught that forming unions is a natural human right, an expression of the right of association and a right that governments may not deny.

CST and Unions

So, with this in mind, what light might Catholic social thought (CST) shed on the matter of graduate student or academic unions? CST’s support for employee associations and for unions has a long history and can only be understood in that context. CST began as a response to the extreme and doctrinaire individualism introduced by the Enlightenment that denied human beings’ innate social character that both classical and traditional Christian thought insist upon. The new theory regarded humans as free, sovereign, and otherwise unassociated individuals. The prevailing individualism viewed all relationships as contractually based, motivated by entirely by self-interest, and lasting only so long as they promoted the parties’ needs. In this perspective, associational ties and obligations enjoy legitimacy only to the extent that an individual has consented to them. It is suspicious of all kinds of associations, seeing them as posing a standing threat to individual freedom.

With humans now conceived as free, sovereign, and unencumbered individuals wholly circumscribed by their own self-interest, what would hold them together? What would serve as the basis of society?


These individualistic principles culminated in the French Revolution, when governments, in the name of individual freedom, suppressed religious orders, the longstanding institution of the fraternities, the guilds, journeymen’s associations, sodalities, the corps, and nearly every other form of mediating structure imaginable. The new order insisted that nothing should stand between the individual and the state, or between citizens themselves. The new order brought an unresolved problem with it, one that continues to haunt us today: with humans now conceived as free, sovereign, and unencumbered individuals wholly circumscribed by their own self-interest, what would hold them together? What would serve as the basis of society?

This problem, which Napoleon (of all people) first described as the “social question,” motivated the development of what became known as the Catholic social tradition, a largely lay-led movement that had close ties to late political Romanticism. The suppression of the guilds and journeymen’s associations and the consequent removal of restrictions on entry to the trades, along with the “freeing” of the peasants (which also freed landowners of their duties to their former tenants) resulted in the growth of a politically voiceless and economically precarious group that the early Catholic social thinker Franz von Baader (years before Marx would adopt the term) called the “proletariat.”

Post-Enlightment Western nations needed to find ways to integrate the disassociated masses into society, to give them legal and political status, and to relieve their severe economic insecurity. For its part, CST tries to cultivate social bonds and social institutions across the whole of society. At the base of CST lies the solidarity principle, which replaces the specifically political friendship that the ancients regarded as the basis of any polity, but the very possibility of which modern thinkers denied.

Solidarity serves not only as a fundamental principle of Catholic social ethics, but as a central social, legal, economic, and constitutional principle of European social democracies. Tellingly, as Nathan Glazer noted, solidarity and fraternity “are not familiar terms for us” Americans. The 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo anno (“On the Reconstruction of the Social Order”), with its suggested reorganization of economy and society along solidaristic lines, grounded by overlapping joint employer-employee institutions, represents one of the most ambitious statements and recommended applications of the solidarity principle. Tellingly, the encyclical’s principles represent one of the few things on which Joseph Schumpeter and John Maynard Keynes enthusiastically agreed. John Paul II also emphasized solidarity and the importance of social structures that mediate the relationship between the individual and state and market. He constantly stressed the central role that unions play in this framework. They not only play an essential role in promoting economic security, but JPII noted, they act as “‘places’ where workers can express themselves” and “help workers to share in a fully human way in the life of their place of employment.”

Unions form a key part of what JPII called these “chains” or “networks of solidarity” that overlap and support one another, thereby encouraging an ecology of interwoven and interdependent social institutions that he likened to a series of “connected vessels.” These networks of solidarity ground individuals and afford concrete means of self-sufficiency and self-determination. In his recent encyclical, Fratelli tutti (“On Fraternity and Social Friendship”), Pope Francis once again reminds the world of the central importance of the solidarity principle and discusses its meaning for contemporary societies. The often heard term “social justice” actually comes from the Catholic social tradition, and refers to the proper ordering of societies along the lines of the principle of solidarity.

Unions form a key part of what JPII called these “chains” or “networks of solidarity” that overlap and support one another, thereby encouraging an ecology of interwoven and interdependent social institutions that he likens to a series of “connected vessels.”


CST and Graduate Students

The institution of graduate student unions stands in full conformity with Catholic social principles. Graduate students, like other individuals contracting with institutions, do not stand on an equal footing with financially powerfully universities. They need the networks of solidarity, especially unions, to guarantee that their dignity and rights are respected.

Graduate student unions are not new. The first case under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) dealing with such unions arose in 1952. While the National Labor Relations Board has changed its position over the past several years on the technical legal question of the status of graduate students as “employees,” many state labor relations agencies long have recognized the protected legal right of graduate students employed by state universities to organize. To take but two examples, graduate students at the University of Wisconsin organized in 1969, while the interns and residents of the University of Michigan Hospitals have bargained since 1974. If anything, the unionization of graduate students recalls earlier models of universities, in which students selected the faculties and otherwise managed their schools, which in many ways resembled the guilds.

Concerns that collective bargaining would clash with academic decision-making are misplaced. Determinations about course requirements for degrees, standards for graduation, qualifications for academic and professional training and the like are issues that lie well beyond the legal boundaries of collective bargaining and escape its reach. To put it plainly: such matters are not subject to the bargaining process. Rather, students bargain over wages, benefits, leave policies, child care, and effective recourse for situations of abuse, harassment or discrimination—all matters central to the employment relationship, not academic standards. Arbitrariness in pay, a lack of workplace protections, and voicelessness in decisions that directly affect student working conditions: these are the repeated concerns cited by graduate student organizing drives.

Tocqueville famously insisted on the importance of associations and self-organization, calling it the “mother” of all other forms of knowledge. Self-organization, private lawmaking, taking direct responsibility for and having a voice in determining the law that most affects one’s day-to-day conditions—all represent practices that support democratic ordering. These efforts stand against the bureaucratization of nearly every aspect of our lives that turns humans into objects of administration instead of people engaged in the most human of activities, self-determination. The solidarity principle—the foundational principle of Catholic social thought—insists on the importance of such practices in its effort to make life more human, as John Paul II put it. Glazer makes a telling point: given its centrality to the social thought tradition, perhaps it behooves Americans, but particularly Catholic Americans, to acquaint themselves with the solidarity principle.