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Graduate Education

Graduate students lose right to unionize

US labor board proposal says no to unionization at private schools

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
September 24, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 38


Photo of a group fo students holding subject signs such as "Chemistry" and "Religion."
Credit: Tiffany Yee-Vo/Graduate Workers of Columbia University
Columbia teaching and research assistants rallied on Dec. 5, 2014, to ask the university to recognize their union.

The US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which oversees unionization efforts, has proposed that graduate teaching and research assistants employed at private universities and colleges no longer have the right to form labor unions.

Three times over the last 20 years, the board has changed its view whether paid graduate teaching and research assistants are primarily students or if they are also employees and have the right to form labor unions and collectively negotiate employment contracts.

The NLRB proposal defines teaching and research assistants as students and exempts them from coverage and protections under the federal National Labor Relations Act. “Students who perform services at a private college or university related to their studies will be held to be primarily students with a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university,” the proposal says. It calls for comments over the next 60 days.

The NLRB’s previous decisions on graduate student workers’ right to unionize have been decided on a case-by-case basis and varied with the makeup of the board. Now, with three of five appointees selected by President Donald J. Trump and approved by a Republican-majority Senate, the board has chosen to propose a rule that would permanently remove the right of teaching assistants to unionize.

The NLRB’s authority extends only to workers in the private sector. Public employees are covered by state laws, and 66,000 teaching assistants in 32 public universities have organized labor unions to represent them in collective bargaining with their institutions, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College.

Students who perform services at a private college or university related to their studies will be held to be primarily students with a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.
National Labor Relations Board, 84 Fed. Reg. 49691

The proposal would effectively overrule a 2016 NLRB decision that extended the right to unionize to teaching assistants in private colleges, based on a unionization drive at Columbia University.

Since 2016, 15 union elections have been held at private universities, and teaching and research assistants at 12 schools have chosen to unionize, according to William A. Herbert, executive director of the collective bargaining study center. Currently, 5 private institutions—New York University, American University, Brandeis University, the New School, and Tufts University—have negotiated contracts with teaching assistants. Another 4 are involved in negotiations at this time—Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown, and Brown universities.

Herbert notes that no matter how the NLRB’s proposal works out, universities may choose to voluntarily negotiate labor agreements with their teaching assistants. Columbia University announced Sept. 23 that it would continue good faith negotiations with its graduate workers union despite the NLRB’s proposal. Similarly Harvard and its union of 4,000 student workers announced that negotiations for a collective bargaining contract will continue as the NLRB considers its proposal.

Herbert notes that such contracts reached through collective bargaining provide stability to the employment process and encourage workplace democracy.


This story was updated on Sept. 26, 2019, to correct the quote citation. Because of an editing error, the reference was listed incorrectly as 21 CFR Part 103. The correct reference is 84 Fed. Reg. 49691.



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