Unions that have been trying to organize graduate students at private universities are about to have some cold water thrown on their campaigns.
The federal agency that referees collective bargaining in the private sector announced Wednesday that it would be issuing a new rule regarding whether such students who teach qualify as employees eligible to join unions. The regulation could have a huge impact on organizing efforts across the country, as more and more grad students seek out union representation.
The National Labor Relations Board did not say what its rule would look like. But now that the board has a 3-1 Republican majority nominated by President Donald Trump, it’s safe to say unions aren’t going to like it. Most of the board’s major new rulings and regulations in the past two years have favored employers over labor groups and made it harder for unions to grow their ranks.
Jess Issacharoff, a recent graduate of Duke University’s Ph.D. program, said she isn’t surprised to see a new roadblock likely to go up. Like many private schools, the Duke administration has declined to recognize the grad student union there, knowing that the current board members would be unlikely to rule in the union’s favor if a case made it before them.
“I understand the Trump NLRB is seeking to undermine worker power, but the fact is we’re always going to organize to demand better working conditions,” said Issacharoff, who studied literature. “The question is, are we going to make those demands at the bargaining table, or through collective action?”
It will probably have to be the latter route, at least for now.
If the NLRB says grad students are not employees, then a school would be under no obligation to bargain with them. The grad students could still function as a union ― Issacharoff is a dues-paying member of the Service Employees International Union, which is trying to organize grad students around the country ― but they couldn’t secure a contract unless the school voluntarily worked one out with them.
The board’s Democratic majority in the Obama years actually determined that grad students who are paid to teach are employees, for the simple fact that they perform work and get compensated for it. But the most hot-button policies under the NLRB tend to get overturned as majorities change. That decision from 2016 had reversed an earlier decision from 2004, which had reversed an even earlier one from 2000.
With schools like Duke fighting the organizing efforts, unions have been reluctant to get the board involved during Trump’s tenure, for fear the Obama-era precedent would be overturned. But it looks like the board might effectively do that anyway, not through a specific case, but through the rulemaking process.
As HuffPost explained after Trump’s election, the changes at the board have made for some odd political bedfellows. The administrations of elite and Ivy League universities, long thought of as bastions of liberalism, have basically been relying on Trump to take care of their union problem.
D. Taylor, the president of Unite Here, which is trying to unionize Yale graduate students, told HuffPost in 2017 that the schools “are absolutely counting on Donald Trump. … The hypocrisy is beyond belief.”
The fact that the unions can’t bargain hasn’t stopped them from flexing their muscles in other ways. Grad students at many schools have held demonstrations and exerted political pressure on their administrations in an effort to get them to voluntarily recognize the unions. Some schools, like Georgetown University, have decided not to oppose the organizing efforts, calling the decision a reflection of its campus values.
The new rule could end up emboldening grad student organizers to escalate their tactics. Just last month, seven grad students at Loyola University Chicago were arrested in a sit-in protesting the school’s opposition. They are trying to unionize with SEIU. And last year grad students at Columbia affiliated with the United Auto Workers went on strike. The school eventually agreed to bargain with the union.
“I think it’s bad faith to try to wait for the Trump administration to take action through the NLRB, instead of dealing with their workers across the bargaining table,” said Issacharoff. “But worker power’s never just been about bargaining.”
Correction: This story originally said that Columbia is fighting the union effort of its graduate students. After originally opposing the campaign, the school agreed to bargain with the union last fall.
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