As an academic worker in the USdomestic or internationalyou have the legal right to organize with your coworkers. At the most fundamental level, your constitutional freedom of speech and freedom of association protect your right to join or support a union, and to collectively advocate for improvements in your working conditions. Additional workers’ rights vary widely depending on whether you are in the public or private sector, and which state you live in. Read on to learn more, or email us at


Under the (EEOC), workers have a right to:

  • Receive equal pay for equal work.
  • Not be harassed or discriminated against (treated less favorably) because of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, or gender identity), national origin, disability, age (40 or older), or genetic information (including family medical history).
  • Receive reasonable accommodations (changes to the way things are normally done at work) that are needed because of their medical condition or religious beliefs , if required by law.
  • Expect that any medical information or genetic information that they share with their employer will be kept confidential.
  • Report discrimination, participate in a discrimination investigation or lawsuit, or oppose discrimination (for example, threaten to file a discrimination complaint), without being retaliated against (punished) for doing so.


“Right to work” refers to a collection of anti-union laws passed in states across the country. These laws claim to be giving employees in workplaces with unions the choice to not join their local union. However, it was already illegal to force anyone to join a union. What right-to-work actually does is force unions to provide the benefits of union membership to workers who choose not to join or to pay their fair share in dues. The goal of right-to-work laws is to drain unions of resources until workers can no longer effectively advocate for change or defend their interests.

While these laws do make it more difficult to sustain existing unions, they do not prevent you from joining or forming a new union. Contrary to common belief, they also do not make it easier for your employer to retaliate against you for supporting unions, or stop you and your colleagues from winning change through collective action.


The union rights of academic workers in the private sector, which includes for- and non-for-profit colleges and universities, are covered at the federal level by the National Labor Relations Act, which is enforced by the National Labor Relations Board.

Under the NLRA, workers have the right to:

  • Read, distribute and discuss union literature (as long as you do this in non-work areas during non-work times).
  • Wear union buttons, T-shirts, stickers, hats or other items on the job at most worksites.
  • Sign a card asking your employer to recognize and bargain with the union.
  • Collectively bargain a union contract with your employer.
  • Sign petitions or file grievances related to wages, hours, working conditions and other job issues.
  • Ask other employees to support the union, to sign union cards or petitions or to file grievances.

Here’s what employers legally cannot do under the NLRA:

  • Threaten employees with loss of jobs or benefits if they join or vote for a union or engage in protected concerted activity.
  • Threaten to eliminate a program or department if employees select a union to represent them.
  • Question employees about their union sympathies or activities in circumstances that tend to interfere with, restrain or coerce employees in the exercise of their rights under the act.
  • Promise benefits to employees to discourage their union support.
  • Transfer, lay off, terminate or assign employees more difficult work tasks because they engaged in union or protected concerted activity.


The 1980 NLRB V. Yeshiva University case resulted in a ruling that full-time professors at private universities do not have the right to collectively bargain as workers because they have “managerial status” on campus. This does not prevent full-time professors from organizing and winning change, but it does mean that your employer is not required to engage in formal contract negotiations with your union. For more information on organizing as a full-professor, contact us.


The rights of workers in the public sector are administered at the state level and vary widely.  In many states, public employees have the right form a union and demand that their employer negotiate a fair contract with them, just like the private sector. However, some states have either banned collective bargaining for public employees, or simply have no laws granting or preventing it. Again, no matter where you are, your constitutional rights to freedom of speech and association apply and protect your basic right to organize.

AFT Academics is committed to organizing with campus workers to build power and win change regardless of the labor laws in your state. To learn more about how you can build power and win change without collective bargaining rights, contact us!


International employees and student workers in higher education have all of the same rights to join and form unions, and advocate for improved working conditions, as their domestic colleagues. It is illegal for your employer or supervisor to threaten your immigration status for participation in legal union activities. International workers have been active members and elected leaders in countless college and university unions affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers for decades. For more information about your rights as an international worker, read the documents shared below.


This document from the US Department of State outlines the labor rights of international workers in the US, including public and private colleges and universities.


This document from the NLRB outlines the rights of international workers in the private sector, including private non- and for-profit colleges and universities.

If you think your employer has violated your right to a voice on the job, AFT Academics may be able to help. Contact us as soon as possible to learn more about your options.