Ruling pushes door to grad-student unions ‘wide open’

Many more private universities can expect to see their graduate employees move to form unions in the wake of last Tuesday’s National Labor Relations Board decision on such an effort at Columbia University.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

The federal labour board’s 3-to-1 ruling resoundingly overturned a 2004 decision involving Brown University. In the Brown ruling, the board asserted that graduate employees should not be allowed to form unions because their doing so would intrude into the educational process.

In Tuesday’s decision, the majority held that such a belief "is unsupported by legal authority, by empirical evidence, or by the board’s actual experience". It not only rejected the Brown precedent, but also overturned a 1974 ruling that had declared research assistants at Stanford University ineligible to unionise based on a belief that such research is part of the educational process.

The board’s decision in the Columbia case says graduate students employed by a private university are as eligible as any other type of worker to form collective-bargaining units under the National Labor Relations Act.

The decision leaves the doors to unionisation "wide open" for graduate employees and "pretty much sweeps almost anyone who is a graduate student providing some service for stipend into the mix", says Daniel V Johns, a lawyer who advises colleges in labour talks as director of the higher education practice of Ballard Spahr LLP.

Private universities can expect to see a wave of unionisation efforts by graduate students, similar to the recent surge in organising among adjunct instructors, says William A Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.

Votes may come soon

The federal board left to a regional director the task of determining how long graduate students need to have worked at Columbia in order to be eligible to vote in a union election.

Julie Kushner, who had overseen the Columbia students’ unionisation drive as director of the United Auto Workers, or UAW, regional office that serves New York City, says she is hopeful that the decision will be made in time for union elections to be held there this fall.

The National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, heard a case involving the unionisation of graduate students at the New School at the same time it was hearing the Columbia case, wrapping the two together procedurally. Although the decision issued Tuesday covered only Columbia, a board ruling on the New School is expected soon.

"We have been expecting this and gearing up for this," says Zoe Carey, a doctoral student in sociology involved in the New School organising effort. "We really look forward to starting the semester off strong, with a vote."

James Mitchell, a doctoral student in physics who is helping organise a UAW affiliate at Harvard University, similarly said in a written statement, "We spent the last year organising our union in anticipation of this moment."

Cornell Graduate Students United, which is seeking to form a union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, last spring reached an agreement with administrators there that called for a "fair and expeditious" union election in the event of an NLRB ruling in favour of the Columbia graduate students.

"We see us winning our election whenever that takes place," says Michaela Brangan, a doctoral student in English who is the Cornell organisation’s administrative liaison. She says Tuesday’s decision "helps us with organising, and it helps us take down the university’s official position that we are students who are training for academia, rather than workers who are keeping this university’s mission alive".

Heather Conroy, who is helping oversee efforts to unionise graduate students at Duke, Northwestern, and Saint Louis universities as an executive vice-president of the Service Employees International Union or SEIU, says she expects the efforts to organise graduate-student unions to be concentrated at large research institutions.

Aaron Nisenson, senior counsel of the American Association of University Professors, says the AAUP has "staff who have been devoted to the issue and have been planning for graduate students to organise for some time". He predicts that most of the new organising efforts will take place in states that already have a large amount of union representation and, especially, in states where unions already represent faculty members or graduate students at public universities.

In a 2011 decision involving nurses seeking to unionise at an Alabama health-care facility, the NLRB gave the green light to the organisation of collective-bargaining units that represent small segments of a work force, rather than being "wall-to-wall", so long as they share common interest. As a result of that precedent, cited in Tuesday’s ruling, graduate students might seek to organise "department by department or college by college within the university setting", says Daniel Johns, of Ballard Spahr.

Administrators push back

Columbia University issued a statement Tuesday that said it is reviewing the NLRB ruling, but "disagrees with this outcome because we believe the academic relationship students have with faculty members and departments as part of their studies is not the same as between employer and employee".

The American Council on Education used much stronger language, issuing a statement in which Peter McDonough, its general counsel, said the ruling "represents a sweeping expansion of federal authority".

"This misguided decision turns all students into potential employees who could be organised, even undergraduate students in Federal Work-Study positions." he said. "Such a development would decrease opportunities for campus jobs that help students, particularly those from low- and middle-income families, finance their education and drive up administrative costs."

Johns says he expects the debate over graduate-student unions to shift from "whether you have a legal right, to whether it is a bad idea". Harvard University responded to the Columbia ruling with a written statement that said, "We continue to believe that the relationship between students and the university is primarily about education, and that unionisation will disrupt academic programs and freedoms, mentoring, and research at Harvard."

Carl J Levine, who represents unions at colleges as a lawyer at Levy Ratner, argues that appeals to graduate students to be content with the academic rewards of their work hold much less sway in an era in which a large share of college faculty members are employed on a contingent basis. The idea that such students will eventually get tenure-track jobs "is just not reality anymore", he says, and students "want to make a living wage and have health-care benefits".

The mere possibility of an NLRB ruling in favour of the Columbia graduate students may have had a positive impact on such students’ working conditions at some colleges. Columbia, Brown University and the University of Chicago have all announced increases in graduate student stipends over the past year, and it is common for employers to take such steps to discourage unionisation.

Learning from others

Herbert, from the centre on the study of collective bargaining, says the nation’s universities currently have 30 collective-bargaining units for graduate students, representing a total of 65,000 graduate assistants and research assistants. Nearly all are at public institutions, where state labour laws govern such unions.

"Private-sector universities are going to look to the experiences of public-sector universities," he says.

Matilda Stubbs, a doctoral student at Northwestern University who is helping to organise a graduate-employee union affiliated with the SEIU, says she has been swapping notes with organisers at another private institution, the University of Chicago. "I think we are going to be combining best practices, sharing information across campuses on how to move forward," she says.

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labour, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.