Bargaining rights of graduate students hang in the balance awaiting labor board ruling

Harvard Graduate Students' Union members and allies strike for a fair contract on Dec. 3 at Harvard Yard. Photo by Sammie Purcell/BU News Service

By Sammie Purcell
BU News Service

BOSTON — While graduate student workers at Harvard continue to strike for a fair contract, a proposed change to labor laws could give private universities licence to ignore the bargaining attempts of student unions. 

The Harvard Graduate Students’ Union took to Harvard Yard on Dec. 3, protesting months of unsuccessful contract negotiations with the administration. According to Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a third-year law student and member of Harvard Graduate Students Union’s bargaining committee, graduate student workers at Harvard were in negotiations with the university for roughly 20 months before resorting to a strike just before finals. 

“We’ve been trying to win a contract that secures fair pay, comprehensive and affordable healthcare and protections against discrimination and harassment,” she said. 

But, after months of negotiations, a proposed ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) could change the way graduate student workers are viewed legally. 

This September, the NLRB proposed a rule that would take away the employee status of graduate student workers, meaning private universities would no longer be obligated to bargain with them. The NLRB said they see the relationship students have with their universities as “predominantly educational rather than economic.” 

The ruling would reverse the board’s 2016 decision in the case of graduate student workers at Columbia University. Before the 2016 decision, the board had decided on the employee status of graduate student workers twice before, once in 2000 and once in 2004. 

“In the past 19 years, the Board has changed its stance on this issue three times,” said NLRB chairman John Ring when announcing the proposed rule in September. “This rule-making is intended to obtain maximum input on this issue from the public, and then to bring stability to this important area of federal labor law.” 

Stanford Law Professor William Gould said if passed, this rule would provide for an “enormous inequity” in labor law. 

“It would deny a percentage of the workforce who meet all the qualifications for employment status their right to engage in collective bargaining,” he said. 

Gould, who was the chairman of the NLRB from 1994 to 1998, said engaging in rulemaking is “unusual and unprecedented” in this type of decision. 

“Rule-making is usually designed to plug gaps or ambiguities in existing law,” Gould said. “Not reverse the decisions of the board.” 

The board defended the rule-making decision in a fact sheet published to their website. 

“In rule-making, the Board is not limited to the facts of a particular case,” read the fact sheet. “Rather, it may consider the myriad of services students provide for compensation under a variety of arrangements at private colleges and universities across the nation.”

Gould said the stance of the NLRB on graduate students’ employee status has gone back and forth, and he hoped the Columbia decision would stick. 

“I would hope the virtues of the board’s decision in Columbia University would be accepted by future boards,” Gould said. “I think what this board is doing is politicizing the issue.”

The NLRB’s decision on the employee status of graduate student workers does seem to coincide with a change in administration. The board that made the 2004 decision was filled with appointees from former President George W. Bush, while the board that made the 2016 decision was largely appointed by former President Barack Obama. 

Three members of the current four-person board were appointed by President Donald Trump. Member Lauren McFerran, appointed by Obama, was the only member who dissented with the proposed rule

The board offered 60 days for the public to comment on the ruling, marking a deadline of Dec. 16. The NLRB has since extended the deadline for comments until Jan. 15. 

Along with the NLRB’s changing position on the employee status of graduate student workers, universities have also expressed opposition to unionization. Private universities across the country have agreed with the NLRB’s claim that the relationship between graduate student workers and their institutions is primarily educational. 

“Graduate students are students, first and foremost,” wrote the former University of Chicago Provost Daniel Diermeier in a note to campus this June. “They come to the university to learn how to study, to learn how to teach future generations of students, and to make original contributions in their chosen fields of knowledge.”  

The statement said the university is not against unions, but believes “doctoral education is most impactful when faculty works directly with students.”

In June 2019, the Boston City Council held a public hearing on graduate student unionization, inviting graduate students from four major institutions – Boston College, Northeastern University, BU and Harvard University – to discuss efforts to unionize. 

The universities themselves were invited to attend the hearing, but none chose to send representatives, opting to send written statements instead. 

Graduate student workers at private universities said their administrations have not recognized their efforts to unionize. On the website for Local 33, the union of graduate employees at Yale University, it lists four university unions that have won elections to bargain, but are still not recognized by their university. These universities include Yale, Boston College, University of Chicago and Loyola University of Chicago. 

In a statement to Yale Daily News in November 2018, Yale spokesman Tom Conroy affirmed the university’s decision to not recognize their graduate student union. 

“Graduate students at Yale are primarily students learning to be scholars and teachers, with teaching assistant opportunities built into the graduate student curriculum,” Conroy said. 

According to Yale’s graduate student union’s website, the union has still not been recognized by the university. 

Megan LeBarron, a fifth year PhD student in Boston University’s American Studies program said union organizers at BU sent a letter to Associate Provost Daniel Kleinman’s office asking to speak about bargaining but were told the university did not want to consider unionization. 

Kleinman declined to comment on unionization or the proposed NLRB ruling. 

Even the graduate student union at Columbia, which the NLRB ruled in favor of in 2016, was not recognized by the university for years after the ruling. 

“We went on strike in spring of 2018 for a week, and then in fall of 2018 we threatened to go on strike again, which is when Columbia started negotiating,” said Susannah Glickman, a fourth year PhD student at Columbia.  

Glickman, who is also a member of the union’s organizing committee, said the union is still bargaining with the university to negotiate a fair contract.  

According to Gould, universities don’t want “democracy” in the workplace and argue that unionization would be out of line with their academic mission.

“They would like to make all the decisions themselves,” he said. 

The argument that unionization would interfere with the academic mission of a university is in line with the NLRB’s assertion that graduate student workers have a primarily educational relationship with the university. However, LeBarron said she considers her relationship with BU as more economical.  

As a teaching fellow for one class, she said she spent so much time grading student papers she could not take an exam for one of her own classes on time. 

“It was very clear to me that my obligations were expected to be to that course and not to my coursework as a student,” she said. “Which tells me that the university is valuing me as a worker.” 

Along with her coursework and working as a teaching fellow, LeBarron said she teaches a freshman writing course and has a writing fellowship that is contingent on her performance as an instructor. 

“Wanting to change this rule to define graduate students’ relationships to institutions as primarily educational and not economic is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the graduate experience is like,” LeBarron said. 

Glickman said the labor of graduate student workers is “indispensable” to Columbia. 

“We do a lot of work that makes the university run,” she said. “When we’ve gone on strike, it’s had a significant effect on the workings of the university.” 

If the deadline for public comment is not extended another time and the ruling on the employee status of graduate student workers comes to pass, LeBarron said efforts would continue but be considerably more difficult. 

“We’ll continue to fight that fight,” she said. “It’ll be harder to get the university to agree to it, but they have an opportunity here to set the stage. They’re leading the field in what a corporate university looks like. They have an opportunity to do it right.”

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