The National Labor and Relations Board hasn’t exactly been consistent with graduate student union rulings over the last two decades.
The focus of the unionization argument is whether or not graduate students — who teach and conduct research — are training for their education or are employees of the university. The NLRB proposed a rule yesterday stating that graduate students should not be recognized as university employees.
Though the NLRB can dictate only the labor and unionization rules of private universities, this proposal serves as a bleak reminder of the current unionization process. Even students at public universities — where it is traditionally much easier to unionize — face similar roadblocks. And it isn’t just graduate students that are burdened. It’s undergraduate students taught by the graduate students and faculty members who are affected too. Without the backing of the NLRB, graduate student unionization becomes even more difficult.
The NLRB ruled that New York University graduate students had the right to unionize in 2000, but in 2004, it ruled that graduate students at Brown University did not have the right to unionize. Then in 2016, the NLRB ruled that Columbia University students had the right to unionize. Since the NLRB members are appointed by the current presidential administration, Republican presidents often rule against unionization — as Bush did with Brown — while Democratic presidents typically rule in favor of it — as Clinton and Obama did respectively. The Trump administration seeks to follow this pattern.
Whether or not a graduate student union is recognized is ultimately left up to the specific university. Some graduate students at private universities — like the University of Chicago — struggle to have their unionization efforts recognized by the university, despite the NLRB categorizing them as employees.
Graduate student unionization is vital, and it’s something that students and other employees alike have spent years fighting for. Unionization provides a front which protects students from rights violations and and also provides legal assistance if said rights are violated. It provides means of a living wage and access to health care. If the NLRB stops recognizing graduate students as employees, unionizers are left with little support to back their fight.
Some private universities, like Harvard, have taken major steps forward in the past few years in regards to unionization. The university voted in favor of graduate student unionization in 2018, a victory that experts called “a step forward for the labor movement.”
But this new proposal is a bleak reminder of just how difficult unionization really is, and just how far we still have to go.