Graduate Workers Are Going to Fight Like Hell to Stop the Trump NLRB’s New Rule

Jeff Schuhrke

Graduate student workers aren't backing down in the face of attacks from Trump's labor board. (Graduate Students Union / Facebook)

At uni­ver­si­ties across the coun­try, grad­u­ate stu­dent work­ers per­form essen­tial labor. We teach class­es, grade exams and assign­ments, tutor and men­tor under­grad­u­ates, main­tain labs, and per­form cler­i­cal duties. Some 66,000 grad­u­ate employ­ees at over 30 uni­ver­si­ties in the Unit­ed States are cur­rent­ly rep­re­sent­ed by unions and pro­tect­ed through col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments, because pub­lic-sec­tor labor laws in many states rec­og­nize the obvi­ous — we are workers.

In August 2016, the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) issued a land­mark deci­sion rec­og­niz­ing that grad­u­ate employ­ees at pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties — who do the same labor as their coun­ter­parts at pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties — are also work­ers, and there­fore also have col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights. Since then, pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties have seen an explo­sion of grad­u­ate work­er orga­niz­ing. At least nine now have rec­og­nized grad unions, and five of those already have union con­tracts in place.

But now Pres­i­dent Trump is try­ing to per­ma­nent­ly reverse the 2016 deci­sion. His anti-union appointees who con­trol the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board declared on Sep­tem­ber 20 that grad­u­ate work­ers at pri­vate insti­tu­tions are not work­ers at all, but only stu­dents,” and there­fore have no right to union rep­re­sen­ta­tion or col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing. Tra­di­tion­al­ly, the NLRB set­tles ques­tions of labor law through case-by-case deci­sions, but this time it’s exer­cis­ing its rarely used rule­mak­ing author­i­ty to set a defin­i­tive policy.

Before the rule can be imple­ment­ed, there is a 60-day pub­lic com­ment peri­od, which opened on Sep­tem­ber 23. The unions rep­re­sent­ing grad work­ers at pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties — includ­ing AFT, SEIU, UAW and UNITE HERE — are team­ing up by call­ing on all grad­u­ate work­ers and allies to sub­mit a pub­lic com­ment to the NLRB express­ing oppo­si­tion to the pro­posed rule. Their goal is to get 30,000 com­ments. With enough pub­lic pres­sure, the unions hope to stop — or at least delay — the new rule.

We’re look­ing at hav­ing fly­ers, peti­tions, del­e­ga­tions, ral­lies, and of course com­ment­ing guide­lines, to engage as many folks as pos­si­ble,” says Yiran Zhang a Ph.D. stu­dent in phi­los­o­phy at Loy­ola Uni­ver­si­ty Chicago.

Zhang is co-chair of the SEIU-affil­i­at­ed Loy­ola Grad­u­ate Work­ers’ Union, which the uni­ver­si­ty has refused to rec­og­nize or bar­gain with despite a major­i­ty of grad­u­ate employ­ees vot­ing to union­ize in Feb­ru­ary 2017. The admin­is­tra­tion has also faced mul­ti­ple protests, includ­ing a civ­il dis­obe­di­ence action and one-day walk­out this past spring.

This is a cross­roads for Loy­ola,” Zhang explains. They must either pub­licly show they stand on the side of work­ers who are increas­ing­ly com­ing under attack by bar­gain­ing with us, or they will show once again that they eschew their pro­fessed social jus­tice val­ues to sim­ply hide behind Trump’s anti-labor policies.”

Nation­al­ly, grad­u­ate employ­ees have tak­en on increas­ing­ly heavy teach­ing work­loads in recent years while mak­ing pover­ty wages and receiv­ing few ben­e­fits. Between 2005 and 2015, the num­ber of grad­u­ate work­ers employed by uni­ver­si­ties increased by 16.7 per­cent, while the num­ber of tenured and tenure-track fac­ul­ty rose by only 4.8 per­cent. Mean­while, exec­u­tive com­pen­sa­tion at pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties has sharply increased, with the pres­i­dents of 61 pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties now mak­ing over $1 mil­lion every year.

The argu­ment that grad­u­ate employ­ees are not real” work­ers is as old as it is absurd. It’s not an inven­tion of Trump’s NLRB, but of uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors who are deter­mined to prof­it off of the exploit­ed labor of their grad work­ers, and don’t want unions to get in the way.

This year marks the 50th anniver­sary of when the Teach­ing Assis­tants’ Asso­ci­a­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son became the first rec­og­nized grad­u­ate work­er union in the coun­try. Since then, grad­u­ate work­ers at dozens of oth­er pub­lic insti­tu­tions — where labor rela­tions are gov­erned by state laws instead of the NLRB — have won union recognition.

Almost every time, admin­is­tra­tors fought tooth and nail to pre­vent union­iza­tion by trot­ting out the same line that grad work­ers are more stu­dents” than employ­ees.” That’s because, once they’re required to nego­ti­ate with grad unions, admin­is­tra­tors are even­tu­al­ly forced to guar­an­tee high­er wages, bet­ter health­care, tuition and fee waivers, griev­ance pro­ce­dures, pro­tec­tions against dis­crim­i­na­tion and oth­er rights through union contracts.

After half a cen­tu­ry, it should be obvi­ous that the stu­dents not work­ers” argu­ment is noth­ing more than anti-union pro­pa­gan­da. In real­i­ty, there’s no ques­tion that grad­u­ate work­ers are indeed work­ers who can and should have col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights.

While uni­ver­si­ties claim to be ded­i­cat­ed to the pur­suit of knowl­edge and truth, admin­is­tra­tors hate unions so much they are now ally­ing them­selves with the most anti-intel­lec­tu­al and men­da­cious pres­i­dent in his­to­ry. Per­haps it’s no sur­prise that the same insti­tu­tions that often cov­er up cam­pus sex­u­al assault and read­i­ly roll out the wel­come mat for white suprema­cists have found com­mon cause with the racist sex­u­al preda­tor who occu­pies the White House.

For all the talk from uni­ver­si­ties of fos­ter­ing col­le­gial dia­logue and debate, admin­is­tra­tors are afraid to sit down at the bar­gain­ing table and nego­ti­ate with their own work­ers. For all the talk of pro­mot­ing crit­i­cal think­ing, they cling to lazy union-bust­ing talk­ing points. For all the talk of com­mit­ment to diver­si­ty and democ­ra­cy, they do every­thing pos­si­ble to pre­vent their grad­u­ate stu­dent work­ers from hav­ing an inde­pen­dent voice.

If cam­pus admin­is­tra­tors and Trump’s NLRB insist that grad­u­ate work­ers at pri­vate insti­tu­tions real­ly aren’t work­ers, then per­haps they should all decide to col­lec­tive­ly stop work­ing — and see just how long the uni­ver­si­ties can func­tion with­out their labor. 

Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke

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