The National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that grad students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities are employees covered by federal labor laws, a major decision that opens the door for graduate students across the country to unionize,
The 3-1 decision — which stems from a petition filed by a group of graduate students at Columbia University in New York who wished to join the United Auto Workers union — reverses a 2004 decision involving Rhode Island’s Brown University that had held that grad students are not employees because they are primarily students.
Matilda Stubbs, who is pursuing her doctorate in anthropology at Northwestern University, said she was “thrilled and encouraged” by the ruling after years of organizing efforts at the school have faltered. The option to form a union has been important to her so that student teachers can bargain for better health coverage, more assistance for students with dependents and to generally have a voice in decisions about their working lives.
“Having our multiple statuses — as students and as employees — established and clarified better enables everyone (students, employees, faculty, administration) to prevent and address workplace-related issues,” Stubbs wrote in an email. “This is a positive move for all parties involved.”
Many university administrators don’t think so, warning that viewing graduate students as employees — and allowing collective bargaining — could hurt the academic nature of their relationship with the school and faculty advisers.
“Northwestern believes that unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address concerns raised by graduate student assistants,” university spokesman Alan Cubbage said in a statement following Tuesday’s decision.
He noted that Northwestern, which provides guaranteed funding for doctoral students for five years, invested $6 million to increase grad students’ annual stipends to $29,000 last year, up 26 percent, and raised them again to $29,880 this year. It is among several schools that have raised graduate student stipends in recent years, which some skeptics say is an attempt to dampen the desire to unionize.
In addition, Cubbage wrote, “Teaching experience, which is extremely valuable in the academic job market, enhances learning for those students while improving communication and other skills.”
The Service Employees International Union, which has been behind a recent surge in unionization efforts of adjunct instructors at private schools across the country, released a news release stating that grad students at a number of schools — including Northwestern — “are launching a massive drive to build unions with SEIU.”
There are also grad student unionization efforts at the American Federation of Teachers, which is affiliated with Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago.
“The truth is graduate workers are the glue that holds higher education institutions together — without their labor, classes wouldn’t get taught, exams wouldn’t get graded and office hours wouldn’t be held,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. “The evidence considered by the board clearly showed that far from being detrimental, collective representation enhances the professor-graduate employee relationship so important to academic success.”
Graduate students made up about 19 percent of instructional staff in 2011, according to the American Association of University Professors. They are part of the contingent faculty, which includes part-time adjuncts and full-time nontenured professors, that has taken on a larger responsibility for teaching over the past few decades, a trend that has driven discontent over low wages and unstable schedules.
“This favorable verdict is a big shot in the arm for the union we have built over these last nine years at U. of C., giving graduate students another powerful tool for improving our working lives,” said Abhishek Bhattacharyya, a University of Chicago doctoral student in South Asian languages and civilizations as well as anthropology. “We remain committed to building a robust, inclusive and democratic union, working alongside teachers in the city, activists in South Side Chicago, and others looking to change the way things work.”
The University of Chicago did not respond to a request for comment.
The NLRB has gone back and forth over the years on whether grad students are employees. The 2004 Brown decision that Tuesday’s ruling overturned reversed a 2000 decision in a New York University case in which the NLRB determined that just because grad students are “primarily students” doesn’t mean they can’t also be employees, which in turn had reversed nearly 30 years of precedent.
Joseph Ambash, an attorney with employment law firm Fisher Phillips who represented Brown in that ruling, said Tuesday’s “sweeping decision … has basically transformed our private higher education systems from educational institutions into workplaces” and could create conditions that are “extremely disruptive and contentious.”
Graduate students at many top-tier private universities are expected to serve as teaching assistants or research assistants as part of the requirements to get their doctorates. Their package of financial support includes an annual stipend, free tuition and free health insurance.
In his dissent, NLRB member Philip Miscimarra, the board’s sole Republican, said collective bargaining, as well as the threat of “economic weapons” such as strikes or lockouts, could also detract from “the far more important goal of completing degree requirements in the allotted time.”
“… For most students including student assistants, attending college is the most important investment they will ever make,” Miscimarra wrote. “I do not believe our statute contemplates that it should be governed by bargaining leverage, the potential resort to economic weapons, and the threat or infliction of economic injury by or against students, on the one hand, and colleges and universities, on the other.”
The majority wrote that the Brown decision “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the (National Labor Relations) Act without a convincing justification.”
Their decision states: “The Board has the statutory authority to treat student assistants as statutory employees, where they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated. Statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the Act does not reach.”
There are 34 collective bargaining units of graduate students in the U.S., the vast majority at public universities, which are governed by state labor laws and not the National Labor Relations Act, according to Bill Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, which is based at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York system.
Some research suggests commonly cited concerns about the impact of unions on academia don’t bear out.
A 2013 study that compared surveys from unionized grad students at public universities with nonunionized grad students at private universities found that perceptions about academic freedom and relationships with professors were as good or better at the public schools, said Paula Voos, professor at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations and co-author of the study.
Bob Bruno, a professor in the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois, said Tuesday’s ruling is “an appropriate decision that corrects an injustice.”
“Grad students are doing work and nothing about being a student subtracts from that employment reality,” he said. “The board’s ruling is part of a larger recognition that the workplace is changing and who performs that work has evolved, and it’s necessary that the protections of the nation’s labor law be extended.”
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