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In historic victory, grad students at private universities win right to unionize

Following yesterday's historic NLRB decision. the Graduate Workers of Columbia sent a delegation to university President Lee Bollinger's office to protest the administration's opposition to their right to unionize. (Facebook / GWC-UAW)

Following yesterday’s historic NLRB decision, the Graduate Workers of Columbia sent a delegation to university President Lee Bollinger’s office to protest the administration’s opposition to their right to unionize. (Facebook / GWC-UAW)

Yesterday brought a major victory for organizers at private universities across the country, as the National Labor Relations Board ruled that students working as teaching and research assistants have the right to unionize. The decision came in response to an appeal from the Graduate Workers of Columbia and the United Auto Workers, overturning a 2004 decision by the NLRB which ruled graduate students at Brown University weren’t employees and not entitled to collective bargaining. Rather, wrote the board in 2004, these individuals were “primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.” Tuesday’s ruling also reversed a 1974 decision that declared research assistants at Stanford University ineligible to unionize.

The decision has many opponents, including Columbia University itself, which issued its objections in a statement yesterday, saying, “Columbia — along with many of our peer institutions — 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.” Others argue that graduate student unionization could interfere with academic freedom.

Yet student organizers have argued for years that they provide vital services to their institutions, which should be recognized as labor. Paul Katz, a fourth-year Ph.D. student at Columbia University told Mother Jones that the roles of student and worker are not mutually exclusive. “When I am working on my own research I clearly am a student, but when I am at the front of the room teaching 15 students about, say, the history of ancient Greece, there is no doubt in my mind that I am a worker, doing work that makes Columbia University great.”

Long before this historic win, student organizers at some universities have been finding ways to unionize. New York University students voted to join the UAW in 2000, and made history in 2002 as the first graduate student union to negotiate a contract with a private institution. Later, following the 2004 decision of the NLRB at Brown, the university reversed its decision to recognize the graduate students’ union. The struggle resumed years later, and — in 2015 — graduate students successfully reestablished their union at NYU.

Now it is possible for many more to follow suit with fewer legal obstacles. Just hours after the NLRB decision, the Service Employees International Union reported that graduate assistants at Duke, Northwestern, St. Louis University and American University were planning to join the union.

In addition to improved conditions for graduate students, many see Tuesday’s victory as part of a larger movement to empower faculty and staff in higher education. SEIU also partners with over 120,000 faculty at American universities, supporting collective efforts among educators, and joined Fight for $15’s national convention in Richmond last week. The UAW is another strong proponent of graduate student unionization and oversaw the Columbia case. Julie Kushner, director of the northeast chapter of the UAW, said “There are tens of thousands of workers at private universities across the United States that will reap the benefits of unionization.”

The NLRB’s jurisdiction is limited to the private sector, but a small number of the approximately one million graduate students at public universities also belong to unions.