This is Huge: NLRB Rules Graduate Student Workers Can Unionize

David Moberg August 24, 2016

The NLRB has shifted back and forth over the past several decades on issues regarding who, among all the people on a university campus, is a worker and thus has the right to organize a union. (SEIU Faculty Forward/ Facebook)

In a strong­ly-word­ed opin­ion released Tues­day, the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) ruled that teach­ing and research assis­tants at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and at oth­er pri­vate insti­tu­tions of high­er edu­ca­tion have the right to orga­nize unions and col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain with the uni­ver­si­ties that both employ and teach them.

The three Demo­c­ra­t­ic NLRB mem­bers wrote that even if stu­dents are enrolled in the uni­ver­si­ty to edu­cate them­selves, they also meet the def­i­n­i­tion of an employ­ee — work­ing for pay to do what some­one else wants them to do. Thus, they should have the same labor rights as any oth­er employ­ee, the mem­bers wrote. (The lone Repub­li­can mem­ber dis­sent­ed; one seat is vacant.)

The rul­ing also empha­sized that the aims of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act (NLRA) were broad — to encour­age work­ers to orga­nize and bar­gain col­lec­tive­ly — and that the def­i­n­i­tions of employ­er and employ­ee are broad. As a result, the rul­ing read, it is appro­pri­ate to extend statu­to­ry cov­er­age to stu­dents work­ing for uni­ver­si­ties cov­ered by the Act unless there are strong rea­sons not to do so.”

The deci­sion is a major vic­to­ry for grad­u­ate stu­dent employ­ees and the unions that want to orga­nize them. Grad­u­ate stu­dents at some pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties already have the right to form unions under state law, but the rul­ing clears the way for cam­paigns to move for­ward at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty, North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty, Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty and oth­er pri­vate institutions.

Short­ly after news of the NLRB deci­sion broke, the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union released a state­ment that cheered the ruling.

SEIU mem­bers in every indus­try are com­ing togeth­er to ensure that our bro­ken high­er edu­ca­tion sys­tem will not derail the next gen­er­a­tion,” said SEIU Pres­i­dent Mary Kay Hen­ry. Restor­ing the rights of grad­u­ate work­ers is a crit­i­cal step in ensur­ing that those on the front-lines of teach­ing and research­ing at col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties have a voice in improv­ing high­er edu­ca­tion for all of us.”

The NLRB has shift­ed back and forth over the past sev­er­al decades on issues regard­ing who, among all the peo­ple on a uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus, is a work­er and thus has the right to orga­nize a union. In its deci­sion in 2000 regard­ing New York Uni­ver­si­ty (NYU) teach­ing and research assis­tants, the NLRB decid­ed that work­ing as a TA or RA looked like many oth­er com­mon law” employ­ment rela­tion­ships. There­fore, they should have the right to form a union and to bar­gain col­lec­tive­ly, the NLRB said.

But four years lat­er, look­ing at Brown Uni­ver­si­ty, the Repub­li­can-lean­ing major­i­ty argued that the NLRA was intend­ed to cov­er eco­nom­ic,” not edu­ca­tion­al,” activ­i­ties, and over­turned the NYU deci­sion. (The admin­is­tra­tion there then vol­un­tar­i­ly agreed to rec­og­nize the union). In its rejoin­der to the authors of the Brown deci­sion, the cur­rent NLRB major­i­ty, review­ing the evi­dence from Colum­bia, said that treat­ing teach­ing and research assis­tants as work­ers best ful­filled the inten­tions of the NLRA. Also, the NLRB wrote, just because work could be edu­ca­tion­al­ly use­ful did not mean it was not, as well, a job.

The Colum­bia deci­sion could be impor­tant in sev­er­al ways beyond the obvi­ous poten­tial for grad­u­ate stu­dent orga­niz­ing. Here’s how:

  • It could increase the rights and rewards of an impor­tant group of often under­paid work­ers in a grow­ing sec­tor with sig­nif­i­cant eco­nom­ic impor­tance. High­er edu­ca­tion depends increas­ing­ly on a vast infra­struc­ture of con­tin­gent employ­ees. In many cas­es, the declin­ing stan­dards for those low­er ranks erode stan­dards for tenured fac­ul­ty. Togeth­er with stu­dent unions, these poten­tial­ly new­ly-orga­nized forces could pres­sure schools toward a more demo­c­ra­t­ic Amer­i­can education.
  • Although the Colum­bia deci­sion affects only teach­ing and research assis­tants direct­ly, a poten­tial uptick in orga­niz­ing could inspire oth­er groups to orga­nize and encour­age more unions to join in the already thriv­ing com­pe­ti­tion for cam­pus work­ers, what­ev­er their jobs. The NLRB rul­ing may spill over in spir­it as well, with union mem­ber­ship hav­ing a new pres­tige among more high­ly-edu­cat­ed, white-col­lar work­ers, includ­ing those work­ing in research centers.

Orga­niz­ing grad­u­ate stu­dent work­ers in both pub­lic and pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties has nev­er been easy. But after Tuesday’s NLRB rul­ing, it’s more pos­si­ble than ever before.

David Moberg, a senior edi­tor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the mag­a­zine since it began pub­lish­ing in 1976. Before join­ing In These Times, he com­plet­ed his work for a Ph.D. in anthro­pol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and worked for Newsweek. He has received fel­low­ships from the John D. and Cather­ine T. MacArthur Foun­da­tion and the Nation Insti­tute for research on the new glob­al economy.

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