NLRB Rules That Graduate Students Can Unionize

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that students at private colleges have the right unionize. The ruling states that graduate students who work as teachers and research assistants are to be considered employees.

The case started as a petition filed by graduate students at Columbia University, writes Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz for the Chicago Tribune. The students wished to join the United Auto Workers union and, in a 3 to 1 decision, were granted that right.

This decision could challenge the currently widely used system of employing adjunct professors and doctoral students to teach. While adjunct professors have had some success in battling for rights, it has been much more difficult for students because their jobs could be considered part of their education.

“Being a teaching and research assistant is important; it’s given me valuable classroom experience. What we do has an educational benefit, but the fact of the matter is we’re not paid fair wages. We work well over the hours we’re supposed to and as a result, wind up being paid minimum wage or less. That’s not enough to live in D.C. Trying to make ends meet every month is virtually impossible,” says Laura Jung, a graduate student of Anthropology at American University.

While graduate students are happy about the ruling, not everyone is on board, points out Danielle Douglas-Gabriel for the Washington Post. Phillip Miscimarra was the one dissenting vote on the labor board. He raised questions on whether this would lead the way for strikes and holdouts and possibly wreak havoc on graduate student education.

This decision reversed a ruling in 2004 in which the labor board found Brown University graduate students were not employees. In fact, that decision was itself a reversal of an earlier ruling. The subject of graduate students unions has frequently changed quite drastically over the last two decades and could possibly continue to do so:

“Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, says “Colleges and universities that used to provide a pathway to the American dream are now becoming a road to poverty for students who find themselves saddled with debt and graduate workers and faculty who are unable to support their families on low pay.””

It still isn’t clear who will be able to unionize, states Libby Nelson writing for Vox. With decisions being overturned and a new take of unionization of student organizations, it’s possible more than just graduate students will be able to join up. The Labor Board decided that an issue about Northwestern football players wanting to unionize fell out of its jurisdiction:

Alan Cubbage, the university spokesman for Northwestern, says “Northwestern believes that unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address concerns raised by graduate student assistants.”

Many graduate students at colleges around the country have taken steps to unionize. The unionization of students could affect more than just the students themselves, points out Melanie Trottman and Melissa Korn writing for the Wall Street Journal. Harvard University believes that this could affect its staff, faculty, and even its future students.

Heather Conroy, executive vice president for the Service Employees International Union, says “It’s an incredible opportunity the NLRB is giving to students, really giving them the ability to have a voice on important issues like their stipends and health care, but also academics and the broader campus community.”