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Graduate students nationwide press for right to form union

Teaching assistants and others ask US labor board to overrule 2004 precedent barring graduate worker unions

Graduate students at some of the United States’ most prestigious universities launched a national day of action on Thursday as part of a years-long campaign to unionize teaching assistants and other student workers.

Students at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Cornell, the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago were among those set to demonstrate on their respective campuses throughout the day. Graduate workers at New York University — the only private university where such workers are currently unionized — also planned public events to support the effort and pressure the NYU administration over what they describe as its failure to implement their collective bargaining agreement.

Grievances vary across departments and campuses, but graduate student campaigners said their core concerns included what they described as inadequate benefits and the threat of arbitrary firings.

Olga Brudastova, a graduate student in Columbia’s civil engineering program, said she hopes a union would be able to address issues she has faced with university bureaucracy in the past. During each of the first two semesters of her program, she only received her allotted stipend after a delay of two or three months — a period made especially stressful by the fact that she is an international student with no other source of income, she said.

“Transparency and clarity are much needed in the administrative process here,” she said in an email. “Having a contract and having a say in what concerns our work lives would reduce unnecessary frustration and distraction from our work."

Columbia University echoed the concerns expressed by other university administrations in a statement that read, “Treating students as employees could adversely affect their educational experience.”

“Our concern is that the unique academic program — and collaboration with faculty mentors — that each individual student develops in graduate school are unlike a typical employer-employee relationship, and are not well served by a one-size-fits-all collective bargaining process,” Columbia's public relations office said in an email.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in 2004 that graduate students, even those doing paid work, cannot be considered university employees and are therefore not eligible to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act. That ruling ended an organizing campaign among Brown University graduate students, and led NYU to stop recognizing its own graduate workers’ union the following year.

But the NLRB ruling didn’t stop students across the country from continuing to organize, mostly under the umbrella of the United Auto Workers (UAW) international union. After years of protests, NYU eventually agreed to once again recognize a graduate student union affiliated with the UAW in 2013.

Still, the 2004 Brown decision — authored by the NLRB under the administration of then-President George W. Bush — remains intact. By granting the graduate students voluntary recognition, NYU guaranteed that the organizing committee would not file a petition with the NLRB; that means the more liberal, Obama-era NLRB members of 2013 would not have an opportunity to overturn their predecessors’ 2004 Brown decision.

Graduate students at other universities want to force a change in precedent. UAW-backed organizing committees at New York City’s Columbia and The New School have filed NLRB petitions, in the hope that the board will issue a favorable ruling for one of them and undo the Brown decision.

Both The New School and Columbia students filed their petitions with the NLRB’s Region 2 office. Regional Director Karen Fernbach has yet to issue a decision on the Columbia petition, but in late July she rejected The New School students’ filing, citing the 2004 Brown precedent. Nonetheless Eli Nadeau, a New School student involved in the unionization campaign, said she was pleased with the ruling.

“It is clear to us that the Regional Director’s decision was strictly adhering to the precedence of Brown, and we were encouraged by the swiftness of her delivery, as it allowed our petition to move to D.C. with greater expedience,” Nadeau said in an email.

The board’s national office in Washington, D.C., would be the one to overturn the Brown ruling if that ever happens. The national office has shown a strong pro-union orientation over the past few years, so labor experts believe the odds are good for the graduate workers; but that could change if the president who succeeds Barack Obama decides to staff the board with more conservative members who are less inclined to support their cause.

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