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labor Could Grad Students Regain Union Rights? Some Hopeful Signs

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is set to review a case involving graduate assistants at New York University. If it is favorably reviewed it could reopen the door to unionizing thousands of graduate employees at private universities.

In one iteration of an ongoing joke in The Simpsons about the lot of graduate students, Lisa throws bread on the ground to feed a group of ducks, only to have a crowd of scraggly students converge instead. A professor with a whip appears and barks, "No food for you grad students until you grade 3,000 papers."

Whips aside, the scene captures the thin line between education and exploitation for advanced degree candidates, who often go deep into debt for the privilege of spending years grading Sisyphean towers of paperwork.

Data on federal loan recipients released recently by the Department of Education distinguishes between graduate and undergraduate student borrowers for the first time. Grad students, it turns out, are saddled with a disproportionately heavy debt load. Though they make up only 15 percent of all students in higher education, they account for nearly a third of federal borrowing, as Jordan Weissmann noted this week at The Atlantic. Skyrocketing tuition and scarce financial aid for graduate programs are among the factors that keep advanced degree candidates mired in debt.

But at the same time that they’re students in need of aid, many graduate students are also workers in need of a raise. The mean annual salary for graduate assistants is $33,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, they shoulder an increasing share of the teaching load.

Graduate employees now make up more than 20 percent of the instructional teaching workforce in higher education, according to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and at many schools, they are more akin to adjunct faculty than full-time students. The Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions estimates that between 50 percent and 70 percent of all university classes are now taught by either graduate assistants or contingent faculty.

Despite that reality, current labor law bars graduate assistants at private universities from collective bargaining, under the rationale that they’re primarily students, not employees. But that may be about to change. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is set to review a case involving graduate assistants at New York University (NYU) that could reestablish the rights of graduate employees to form unions, reversing a 2004 decision by the Bush-era board and reopening the door to unionizing thousands of graduate employees at private universities.

The NLRB is one of the federal agencies currently impacted by the government shutdown, so it’s unclear when exactly it will issue a decision. The case before before the board dates back to 2010, when teaching assistants at New York University and research assistants at NYU's Polytechnic Institute filed a petition for a union election, hoping to spark a renewed debate over the collective-bargaining rights of graduate student employees. The NLRB announced last June that it would review the cases and reconsider the 2004 decision that stripped graduate employees of these rights, but a ruling was delayed by the long fight over vacancies on the board. Labor advocates expect that the NLRB's renewed Democratic majority as of July bodes well for a decision in favor of the graduate employees at NYU, who are seeking representation by the United Auto Workers (UAW). Historically, the board’s position on graduate employee unions has shifted according to the party in power.

With a ruling from the NLRB potentially imminent, NYU offered a partial concession this month. Earlier this year, NYU reportedly offered to recognize a teaching assistants' union immediately if graduate employees withdrew their pending petitions before the NLRB, a move that graduate organizers regarded as an attempt to preempt establishment of a legal precedent that could help catalyze organizing at other private universities. On October 4, NYU renewed this offer formally in a letter to the UAW, but it once again came with a caveat: The union would have to cease attempts to unionize research assistants, whom it says perform research as a required part of their academic programs, rather than for pay.

Graduate assistants, however, are seeking to form a bargaining unit that is comprised of both teaching assistants and research assistants—a demand that they say would merely restore the collective bargaining rights that they possessed before the NLRB’s 2004 decision in a separate case involving graduate employees at Brown University. In 2001, NYU’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) negotiated the first-ever union contract with a private university. But the union lost recognition after its contract expired in 2005, and thanks to the NLRB decision the previous year, NYU was no longer legally required to continue bargaining with it.

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The union has already rejected NYU’s most recent offer as a “public relations move” and vowed not to split up the bargaining unit, as Scott Jaschik reported at the education blog Inside Higher Ed.

But graduate organizers also believe it’s a sign that for the first time in a long time, they’re in a position of strength. The offer by NYU’s administration may be an attempt to “preempt the NLRB,” says Matt Canfield, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology and member of GSOC’s organizing committee, and is also a result of the “incredible amount of pressure we’ve put on the administration.” NYU says the offer is instead an attempt to clarify the university’s position. Spokesperson John Beckman told Jaschik, "We want to be clear to NYU and the union that the issue to us is not unionization per se, but RAs being unionized, because that veers into academic territory in a way that is a much greater challenge for us."

A series of rallies by graduate student employees calling for the administration to allow union elections to move forward have drawn the support of state officials. During New York’s mayoral primaries last month, five leading Democratic candidates—including Bill de Blasio—also wrote a letter to NYU President John Sexton urging him “to respect the long-standing majority choice of graduate, research and teaching assistants for UAW representation.”

The letter continues:

We value the contributions the university makes to our city as an institution of higher education and as an economic engine. However, we find the years of delaying the rights of all graduate employees to choose union representation unacceptable and we encourage the university to do the right thing. None of us wants to have to continue to address this ongoing problem as mayor.

The UAW case before the NLRB has also drawn support from major labor groups, including the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Teachers, which last year filed amicus briefs. Universities and higher education groups backed NYU, arguing that the economic relationship between graduate assistants and universities is incidental to their role of students. "Petitioners urge a cynical view, that the university is just another big business, that graduate students are no more than wage earners, and that using graduate student teachers and researchers is merely a cost-saving measure,” the American Council of Education argued in a brief filed in conjunction with other labor groups. "The academic student/teacher relationship is, and should remain, removed from the issues that our labor laws address."

The view that the teacher/student relationship is an employer/employee one may be “cynical,” but many graduate students argue that it’s irrefutable—and that graduate employee unions provide one of the best means of countering the deepening corporatization of the university. The argument that academia is “above” the world of work, graduate student organizers have long argued, is an anti-union argument cloaked in the discourse of professionalism.

Furthermore, the notion that collective bargaining damages student-faculty relationships—which factored into the NLRB’s 2004 decision stripping graduate employees of bargaining rights—appears to have little empirical basis, says Paula Voos, a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Labor and Management Relations who testified before the NLRB on behalf of the union in 2010. “We see this argument being repeated again and again on the management side, but there isn’t really any evidence,” she says. Voos is the co-author of a survey, published this April in ILR Review, that surveyed unionized and non-unionized graduate student employees at public universities, many of which fall under state collective-bargaining laws that permit unionization. The survey found that student employees represented by a union typically earn more, and report similar (and sometimes better) outcomes in terms of relations with faculty. Adrienne Eaton, another co-author of the study, told In These Times via e-mail that union representation could potentially improve student-faculty relationships “by moving any bargaining over financial terms of the relationship to the top-level administration … leaving faculty and students to concentrate on the work and the mentoring relationship.”  

Voos says she hopes to see the NLRB return to its pre-2004 standard, when graduate students were afforded the protections of employees under the law if they worked as either teaching assistants or research assistants. “The law in this area has sorted people into one category or the other,” says Voos. “In fact, you can be multiple things. You can be a student and employee, just like you can be a mother and an employee—that is obvious in the real world, but the law treats them as mutually exclusive.”

Legal barriers aren’t the only factor that have stopped academic employees from organizing in the private sector. Both New York University and Yale University retained union-busting law firms in an effort to head off graduate employee unions. More recently, union efforts to step up organizing drives of adjunct faculty in the private sector have been met with a similar response. Northeastern University has reportedly hired the notorious union-buster Jackson Lewis to counter organizing efforts by adjuncts, as I reported in August.

In several cases, graduate employees have made gains even when they are barred from formal collective bargaining. Graduate Students United (GSU) at the University of Chicago, which is also seeking union representation, won substantial pay raises for teaching assistants in 2008 following a series of rallies and “teach-outs.”

Graduate employee unions at public universities in so-called “right-to-work” states, which have restricted collective-bargaining rights, have also turned to less conventional tactics: This summer, members of the Teaching Assistants’ Association at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who lost collective bargaining rights under Governor Scott Walker's Act 10 in 2011, won a wage increase following a series of “grade-in” protests during which graduate employees occupied administrative halls while performing their required grading duties.. And at NYU, GSOC has continued to protest cuts to graduate students’ paid health insurance, which they first won through the union contract in 2001, that now require them to pay thousands of dollars in fees in order to add dependents, among other things.

Graduate employee organizers believe that the growing financial burden on graduate students will almost certainly mean dwindling diversity. “We’re concerned that academia will become closed off to people of color, and people with children—and we want to ensure that NYU reflects the diversity of the city we’re in,” says Canfield. But he also notes that a green light from the NLRB could help reverse this trend, both at NYU and at universities like Yale and the University of Chicago where graduate employees are watching the outcome with bated breath. “They’re all waiting on this decision. NYU really has the opportunity to set a precedent.”


Rebecca Burns, In These Times Assistant Editor, holds an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where her research focused on global land and housing rights. A former editorial intern at the magazine, Burns also works as a research assistant for a project examining violence against humanitarian aid workers.