NLRB Nixes Unions for Graduate Students


Published: NYT, July 16, 2004

The fast-growing movement to unionize graduate students at the nation’s private universities suffered a crushing setback yesterday when the National Labor Relations Board reversed itself and ruled that students who worked as research and teaching assistants did not have the right to unionize.

In a case involving Brown University, the labor board ruled 3 to 2 that graduate teaching and research assistants were essentially students, not workers, and thus should not have the right to unionize to negotiate over wages, benefits and other conditions of employment.

The Republican-controlled board reversed a four-year-old decision involving New York University, a private institution, in which the board, then controlled by Democrats, concluded that graduate teaching and research assistants should be able to unionize because their increased responsibilities had essentially turned them into workers.

As a result of the 2000 N.Y.U. ruling, students there formed the first graduate employees’ union at a private university in the nation. (Graduate student workers at public universities are governed by state labor laws rather than federal law, and many states have given them the right to unionize.)

“The previous decision in the N.Y.U. case overturned over 30 years of determinations by the National Labor Relations Board on whether graduate students who worked as teaching and research assistants were students or employees,” Mr. Steinbach said. “And it threatened the traditional relationship between colleges and their graduate student assistants.”But Edward J. McElroy, the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, who is set to be elected the union’s president today, called the decision “outrageous.”

“These people obviously are workers,” Mr. McElroy said. “If members of the N.L.R.B. can’t recognize a worker when they see one, they shouldn’t be on a national labor board.”

[T]he board stated that “there is a significant risk, even a strong likelihood, that the collective-bargaining process will be detrimental to the educational process.”Philip Wheeler, the U.A.W.’s director for New York and New England, derided the labor board’s logic.

“I understand that they say it would be too disruptive to the great American education system,” Mr. Wheeler said. “Once upon a time, they said that unionizing would be too disruptive for American manufacturing. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.”

There is more at stake here than whether or not graduate students–who have been given more and more responsibilities over the years, including teaching classes, grading exams, acting as advisors to junior students, and doing all a professor’s clerical chores (40 hr weeks are no longer uncommon)–will be paid a decent wage for their efforts. What this is really about is the threat posed by a generation of bright young men and women convinced that unions are a good, perhaps necessary, mechanism for restraining the power of employers to dictate terms, and then taking that conviction out into the world with them where it could (Horrors!) spread.

The grad student unions were an important first step in reminding a generation that has been trained to think of unions as evil, corrupt, and unnecessary that they are no such thing; that they are in fact a key element of any stable working relationship, and that without them to protect your rights you are often no less than chattel to be used and abused by a power structure that takes you for granted and pays you starvation wages to boot.

The movement was spreading and it had to be stopped. The NLRB took the first step by overturning a decision that said that private universities–the Pubs’ favorite kind–had to adhere to the same rules as public colleges for the hoi-polloi but one doubts that the decision outlawing unions there as well can be far behind. A Republican NLRB is going to back the employers, period. They always have, they always will.