It’s Game On for Grad Students After NLRB Rules They Can Unionize

Rebecca Nathanson

Graduate employees at many public universities have long enjoyed the right to unionize, but their peers at private universities have faced a long, serpentine route to achieve that same right. (Rebecca Nathanson)

Decem­ber 5 fell on a Fri­day in 2014; in New York City, the air was crisp. At Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, about 200 grad­u­ate stu­dent-work­ers pulled on hats and scarves to gath­er on the impos­ing steps of Low Library, which hous­es the uni­ver­si­ty president’s office. While most stood in a block for­ma­tion, hold­ing signs declar­ing their depart­ment names, a small del­e­ga­tion went inside to deliv­er a let­ter to the pres­i­dent. It asked that he vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­nize their union, the Grad­u­ate Work­ers of Colum­bia (GWC-UAW Local 2110), which a major­i­ty of grad­u­ate employ­ees supported.

When the admin­is­tra­tion declined to reply, GWC and the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers (UAW), with which it is affil­i­at­ed, peti­tioned the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) to cer­ti­fy their union. A com­pli­cat­ed legal process ensued.

For more than a decade, the NLRB con­sid­ered grad­u­ate employ­ees to be stu­dents, not work­ers. As such, they did not have the same legal rights of most employ­ees, includ­ing the right to orga­nize. All that changed two weeks ago when the NLRB deci­sion on the Colum­bia case final­ly came back, sid­ing with the stu­dent-work­ers and their right to col­lec­tive bargaining.

Obvi­ous­ly, it’s a huge push for us and it’s caused a lot of excite­ment and enthu­si­asm,” says Ian Bradley-Per­rin, a PhD stu­dent in sociomed­ical sci­ences and his­to­ry, who has worked as both a teach­ing and research assistant.

After months of approach­ing peo­ple with hypo­thet­i­cals, he says that he and his fel­low orga­niz­ers can now speak in con­crete terms: We’re going to have an elec­tion. We are now rec­og­nized as work­ers. So it’s just been talk­ing to peo­ple about what a union actu­al­ly means, how the union is orga­nized demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly, how people’s inter­ests will be rep­re­sent­ed in the union.”

Grad­u­ate teach­ing and research assis­tants at a hand­ful of pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties have been work­ing towards union­iza­tion for years. Their admin­is­tra­tions have large­ly been able to ignore their actions, cit­ing the NLRB’s des­ig­na­tion of them as stu­dents. Now, how­ev­er, their efforts can final­ly move for­ward. They have the legal right to hold union elec­tions and then nego­ti­ate con­tracts, pro­vid­ing them a col­lec­tive voice in the terms of their employ­ment. Already, the NLRB’s rul­ing is invig­o­rat­ing exist­ing cam­paigns and inspir­ing new ones.

Path to recognition

Grad­u­ate employ­ees at many pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties have long enjoyed the right to union­ize, but their peers at pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties have faced a long, ser­pen­tine route to achieve that same right. In 2001, grad­u­ate employ­ees at New York Uni­ver­si­ty (NYU) became the country’s first to form a union and nego­ti­ate a con­tract at a pri­vate uni­ver­si­ty, pro­vid­ing teach­ing assis­tants with wage increas­es and improved work­ing conditions.

Three years lat­er, grad­u­ate employ­ees at Brown Uni­ver­si­ty attempt­ed to do the same, but the NLRB, which had then shift­ed to a Repub­li­can major­i­ty, ruled that grad­u­ate employ­ees were pri­mar­i­ly stu­dents, not work­ers. In 2005, the NYU union’s con­tract expired and, using the 2004 Brown deci­sion as prece­dent, the admin­is­tra­tion refused to nego­ti­ate a new one.

NYU’s admin­is­tra­tion kept firm to that stance until fall 2013, when it offered to vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­nize the union. More than 98 per­cent of grad­u­ate employ­ees vot­ed in favor of the union, mak­ing it, once again, the only grad­u­ate employ­ee union at a pri­vate university.

Orga­niz­ers across the coun­try were anx­ious to fol­low in their foot­steps. Last month’s NLRB rul­ing gives them a shot in the arm.

At Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, grad­u­ate stu­dent orga­niz­er Abi­gail Weil is par­tic­u­lar­ly excit­ed by the expan­sive way in which the NLRB defined a grad­u­ate employ­ee in its rul­ing: It’s broad­er and more inclu­sive than even we had hoped for. That’s just that many more peo­ple that we can talk to and fold into the bar­gain­ing unit as we cre­ate it.”

In its deci­sion, the NLRB writes, It is appro­pri­ate to extend statu­to­ry cov­er­age to stu­dents work­ing for uni­ver­si­ties cov­ered by the (Nation­al Labor Rela­tions) Act unless there are strong rea­sons not to do so.” It con­tin­ues, We will apply that stan­dard to stu­dent assis­tants, includ­ing assis­tants engaged in research fund­ed by exter­nal grants.” Not only does this include research assis­tants in addi­tion to teach­ing assis­tants, but, Weil posits, it could also be inter­pret­ed as includ­ing work­ing Mas­ters stu­dents — and pos­si­bly even work­ing undergraduates.

Accord­ing to Weil, the Har­vard Grad­u­ate Stu­dents Union (HGSU-UAW) plans to file a peti­tion for an elec­tion. She can already see a change in cam­pus support.

We’re thrilled at how many peo­ple were fol­low­ing the NLRB sto­ry,” she says. Since that deci­sion has come out, prob­a­bly two-thirds of the peo­ple that we talk to now bring (it) up with­out us hav­ing to bring that up or explain it.”

Orga­niz­ers at The New School, in New York City, are expe­ri­enc­ing a sim­i­lar phenomenon.

Like at Colum­bia, grad­u­ate employ­ees at The New School asked their admin­is­tra­tion to vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­nize their union. When that didn’t work, they too peti­tioned the NLRB for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, only to hit the wall cre­at­ed a decade ear­li­er by the Brown decision.

We had our first meet­ing of the year on Mon­day and we had prob­a­bly three times as many peo­ple show up,” says Eli Nadeau, a Mas­ters stu­dent in the pol­i­tics depart­ment at The New School. We’re plan­ning for an elec­tion because Columbia’s rul­ing cov­ers us.”

Grad­u­ate work­ers at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty took a slight­ly dif­fer­ent approach to win­ning col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights. While bid­ing their time until the NLRB ruled on the Colum­bia case, they nego­ti­at­ed and signed a code of con­duct with their admin­is­tra­tion in May. The doc­u­ment out­lines the mech­a­nisms by which a union elec­tion would take place and the behav­ior expect­ed of both sides.

Our next steps are real­ly just work­ing on the union. We are build­ing out­reach and find­ing out what our mem­bers’ con­cerns are,” explains Ben Nor­ton, a PhD stu­dent in the music depart­ment and the com­mu­ni­ca­tions and out­reach chair of Cor­nell Grad­u­ate Stu­dents Unit­ed, the university’s grad­u­ate employ­ee union affil­i­at­ed with the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers and the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Association.

We wast­ed no time”

Cam­paigns on numer­ous cam­pus­es have been gal­va­nized by the Colum­bia deci­sion, but grad­u­ate employ­ees at Yale Uni­ver­si­ty took per­haps the swiftest action in its wake. Less than a week after the rul­ing, they filed a peti­tion to hold an elec­tion to cer­ti­fy their union with the NLRB.

We wast­ed no time. It was real­ly excit­ing for the path to vic­to­ry to open up and for us to real­ly take advan­tage of it,” says Aaron Green­berg, a PhD stu­dent in the polit­i­cal sci­ence depart­ment and chair of Local 33-UNITE HERE, which rep­re­sents Yale’s grad­u­ate teach­ing and research assistants.

In fil­ing their peti­tion, UNITE HERE and orga­niz­ers at Yale are cre­at­ing yet anoth­er vari­a­tion on a grad­u­ate employ­ee union. Rather than file as an entire unit of employ­ees across the uni­ver­si­ty, they did so depart­ment-by-depart­ment, start­ing with 10 departments.

We real­ly want a process that reflects how our work is orga­nized. How much you get paid, what kind of work you do, what kind of hours you do real­ly depend on the depart­ment,” explains Green­berg. Plus, he adds, We’re hop­ing that by fil­ing each depart­ment sep­a­rate­ly and start­ing with depart­ments where the desire to union­ize is over­whelm­ing­ly clear, we can avoid waste­ful legal games­man­ship, unnec­es­sary delays, and that the uni­ver­si­ty will respect the demo­c­ra­t­ic will of the mem­bers of these depart­ments, who have made clear, time and time again, that they want a union.”

One of the next steps for grad­u­ate employ­ees at many of the pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties hop­ing to take advan­tage of the recent NLRB deci­sion will be work­ing out the exact para­me­ters of the bar­gain­ing unit: who it cov­ers and who it excludes is not yet com­plete­ly clear. But in the mean­time, they will, for the first time in more than a decade, be able to move clos­er towards union­iza­tion with­out legal bar­ri­ers — bar­ri­ers which, orga­niz­ers believe, were knocked down by the force of the orga­niz­ing that took place in those inter­ven­ing years.

Labor law fol­lows orga­niz­ing, not the oth­er way around,” says Weil. We have been orga­niz­ing to the full extent of our abil­i­ties, not the full extent of our legal rights. We’re hap­py to have those rights restored.”

Rebec­ca Nathanson is a free­lance writer in New York City. She has writ­ten for Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca, n+1, The Nation, NewYork​er​.com, The Pro­gres­sive, Rolling​Stone​.com, and more.
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