Why the NLRB sided with graduate workers

August 30, 2016

Sean Larson, a member of the graduate student workers union at New York University, looks at the reasons for organized labor's victory in a recent NLRB ruling.

THE NATIONAL Labor Relations Board issued a long-awaited ruling last week in favor of the graduate student workers' union at Columbia University, asserting that student assistants at all private universities are indeed workers and have the right to unionize.

In a major victory for similar unionization efforts across the country, the decision reversed a 2004 ruling that sided with university administrators and stripped graduate workers of their right to collectively bargain.

According to the new ruling, all "student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees," including those conducting externally funded research. The employee designation also extends to masters students and undergraduates employed by the university.

Legal recognition will provide a much-needed boost to unionization efforts and a pathway to securing graduate worker rights in contracts with their employers. New organizing initiatives are bound to emerge in the wake of the ruling--such as already occurred at the University of Rochester and Syracuse University.

Members of the Graduate Workers of Columbia union at Columbia University
Members of the Graduate Workers of Columbia union at Columbia University (GWC-UAW Local 2110)

GRADUATE SCHOOL is no longer the way station on the path to a secure and privileged academic career that it once was. Tenure-track positions have been disappearing for decades, giving way to the adjunctification of the university. Nationwide, 77 percent of all instructional staff (including graduate student instructors) have contingent and insecure job appointments.

In the distant past, the promise of a bright future may have been enough to sustain teaching and research assistants laboring for many hundreds of hours over five to 10 years. Today, however, faced with bleak post-graduation prospects, they are turning their attention toward their own working conditions.

According to a comprehensive American Association of University Professors report, Ph.D.-granting universities, graduate employees make up 40 percent of teaching staff. Graduate students know that universities can't run without their labor, and they are demanding recognition as workers.

The new ruling will provide legal backing to the arguments organizers have been making for years. While graduate assistant unions are common at public universities in many states, unionization efforts have been thwarted both at private universities and in public institutions in states with restrictive laws on public-sector unions.

Nevertheless, union organizing campaigns have been gathering momentum for years at private universities, including Yale, Columbia, Harvard, Duke, the New School, the University of Chicago, Cornell and elsewhere. One high point in the private university unionization movement was last year's victory at New York University (NYU).

Increasing public actions, cross-university coordination though forums like the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions and continuing organizing efforts put pressure on the NLRB to reverse its previous stance. This new victory must be attributed to those efforts on the ground.

UNIVERSITY ADMINISTRATORS have tried to keep out the union by any and all means.

Ahead of the NLRB decision, a number of private universities announced stipend increases and other benefits for graduate students, hoping to demonstrate their benevolence and dissuade graduate workers from asserting their right to a union.

Despite administrators' cynical appeals to the "university community," however, graduate workers recognize that these stipend increases were granted only as a response to substantial threats of unionization.

At Columbia, where the union appealed to the NLRB and won this latest decision, a vigorous grassroots organizing campaign by the Graduate Workers United has already won increases in stipend pay, a $15 minimum wage for all student workers, affordable health care, wider access to paid parental leave and bigger subsidies for childcare. Such concessions, coming even before organizing campaigns were recognized, only strengthen the case for the union as the only viable path to win improvements in working conditions.

Meanwhile, at the University of Chicago, the president and provost sent out a stern letter to all faculty and graduate students, listing a number of concessions the university has granted to graduate workers, including pay increases, expanded health care coverage and child care grants. With paternalist condescension, the letter claimed, "It is unclear whether a graduate student labor union would have achieved any of these outcomes."

What the president and provost want to repress, however, is that every one of these concessions, from benefits to pay increases to improvements in work and study conditions, were granted as a response to campaigns by the Graduate Students United (GSU) at the University of Chicago. Operating without formal recognition, GSU won numerous concessions over a number of years.

This pattern has repeated itself on campus after campus: collective action gets the goods, even in the absence of legal recognition.

LIKE PREVIOUS rulings on this issue, the NLRB decision hinged on whether graduate teaching and research assistants should be legally classified as students or workers in terms of their relationship to the university. The new decision says they can be both: receiving an education some of the time does not preclude providing teaching and other services for pay to the university.

University administrators continue to claim that the faculty-graduate relationship is a special, scholarly training that has nothing to do with the employer-employee relationship typical of a workplace.

Thus, soon after the decision, Columbia's provost sent a letter to the "Columbia community," in which he wrote: "I am concerned about the impact of having a non-academic third-party involved in the highly individualized and varied contexts in which faculty teach and train students." It would seem that these administrators of the corporate university have suddenly become champions of scholarly rigor, which they claim is dependent on a union-free personal relationship.

However, as justification for its decision, the NLRB cited a 2013 study that empirically debunks this idea. Far from harming faculty-student relationships, unionization was shown to have a positive effect, with graduate student employees reporting higher levels of personal and professional support.

As graduate students today are well aware, the mythical ideal of a carefree scholarly collaboration between faculty and graduate students was killed off long ago, if it ever existed. It was strangled not by the unions, but by the profit-driven imperatives of the corporate university.

The same administrators pushing the "special scholarly relationship" argument have been notoriously disdainful of the university's "scholarly mission" while slashing budgets, increasing class sizes and tuition, and liquidating entire departments.

The dire concern that unionization would intrude on academic freedom was echoed in a joint amicus brief filed in the Columbia case to the NLRB by a slew of private university administrations. Collective bargaining, the alarmed administrators insisted, would "impermissibly intrude into the academic freedom" of graduate students.

But the most serious infringements of academic freedom at universities come from the restructuring of higher education itself.

Universities are run as businesses. They decrease permanent faculty while increasing administrative costs. Private universities gobbling up market share put similar pressures on public universities--at the same time as the neoliberal agenda of austerity and privatization rules at all levels of government, whether the Republicans or Democrats are in charge. In the hard sciences, near-total reliance on external corporate funding translates to de facto corporate control over research agendas.

The principle of academic freedom and of the university as a space of critical inquiry and open dialogue simply does not apply to contingent faculty. The insecurity of their appointments keeps them entirely dependent upon administrators who can dismiss them at will. Unless they have a union to defend them, they cannot rely on the same kind of safeguards that protect tenured faculty from being dismissed for political reasons.

Everywhere, university administrators lament the supposed union threat to scholarly integrity. But behind this charade, they continue to dismantle academic freedom and the educational experience in order to maximize revenue from graduate employees.

In reality, history shows us that unions don't infringe on academic freedom, but are among its greatest promoters and defenders.

"Academic freedom" wasn't guaranteed to academic workers until it was locked into collective bargaining agreements in the late 1930s, when the American Federation of Teachers spearheaded campaigns against loyalty oaths and suppression of free speech in the education system.

During McCarthyism in the 1950s, when a climate of fear crept into the academy, silencing faculty and severely constricting research agendas, labor struggles and social movement organizing were responsible for re-establishing principles of free speech in the public sphere and the academy.

Actually, we have labor unions to thank for the principle of academic freedom--a principle that will be kept alive today by revitalizing the labor movement.

GRADUATE WORKERS' unions are needed now more than ever. With heavy teaching and research workloads, graduate workers are long overdue for a voice in their workplaces. They deserve to be treated with respect by their employers, which also means receiving adequate health care, child care and parental leave.

Universities rely on graduate employees to teach a significant percentage of their classes--that's why collective action by graduate workers can win real improvements in working and living conditions. The power of the union continues to be rooted in its organizing strength. This will be what determines the success of the union movement among graduate employees and academic workers as a whole.

For many students, graduate school can be a bleak experience, defined by isolation, atomization and powerlessness in the face of extreme administrative demands. This is one of the many challenges that remain in organizing graduate employees. Even with the NLRB's ruling, the university has many tools to obstruct organizing and pit workers against one another: the inevitable competition for a diminishing number of tenure-track jobs and powerful anti-union PR firms, to name a few.

But the fires of solidarity have been lit among academic workers, and graduate workers' unions are defying administrators' intimidation. The NLRB decision, a product of the struggle over many years, is an important victory. The union has come to campus, and it is here to stay.

Further Reading

From the archives