Graduate student unionization

by Henry Farrell on October 28, 2010

I’m pleased that the NLRB looks to be “reversing its position on graduate student unionization”:

bq. The National Labor Relations Board, in a 2-to-1 decision, has edged away from its recent history of rejecting unionization rights for graduate teaching assistants at private universities.

In the decision, the NLRB found that the graduate students at New York University who are currently trying to unionize with the United Auto Workers deserve a full hearing on the merits of their organizing drive. In so doing, the majority of the NLRB reversed a regional director’s decision that the UAW could not organize graduate students at NYU because of a 2004 NLRB ruling in a case involving Brown University graduate students.

The decision is particularly piquant because it cites to NYU’s own policies as evidence supporting the grad students’ position.

bq. In its new ruling, the NLRB cites differences in NYU’s relationship with its graduate students now as compared with the past and with other universities today to suggest that they may be entitled to a union. For instance, the NLRB ruling notes that NYU has said that its graduate students who teach do so voluntarily and are free to join the adjunct union at the university for representation in their role as instructors. The NLRB ruling says that this is significant because it means that graduate students are being paid as employees, not simply as graduate students.



Manta1976 10.28.10 at 11:56 am

I did not know that you needed permission to unionize: where is this New York University? In North Korea?


Wag 10.28.10 at 1:21 pm

They should go with the Teamsters! That’d scare Sexton!


elizabeth_d 10.28.10 at 1:47 pm

The article says that previously graduate students were considered to be students, not employees, and so did not have the right to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act.


lt 10.28.10 at 2:03 pm

#1, 3: More specifically, in 2000 the NLRB reversed precedent that had held graduate employees at private university were not entitled to organize, and an election was held at NYU and eventually a contract was negogiated. This was overturned, as mentioned above, by a Bush-appointed board in 2004: while that case involved Brown, adminostrators at NYU used it as the occasion to let the agreement expire.


Linnaeus 10.28.10 at 2:08 pm

You really shouldn’t need permission to unionize, but the application of labor law to student workers gets a little sticky, which creates problems like the one we have at NYU.

I’ve been involved, to one degree or another, in two unionization drives at universities, albeit public ones. The basic claim that university administrations make at the outset when they oppose a union for ASEs (academic student employees) is that said ASEs are not actually employees. According to this argument, the teaching duties of a graduate TA, for example, constitute “professional development” (or some similar term) that is fundamentally part of that student’s education, just like going to a class or a seminar. The idea is that the TA’s status as a student somehow overrides the fact that the TA is doing work for the university, is responsible to superiors for the performance of this work, and is paid for this work (a situation in which everyone else would be defined as “employees”).

Labor relations at public universities are governed by state labor laws, court decisions, etc., so unionizing ASEs at those places has been relatively easier; private universities have a much freer hand in opposing ASE unionization.


jacob 10.28.10 at 2:31 pm

Further to 4 and 3 and in response to 1: The issue is not unionization, the issue is collective bargaining and employer recognition of that union. There is indeed a union of graduate employees at NYU–it’s called GSOC, and it’s affiliated with the UAW–and it does many of the things unions do, including organizing workers and fighting to protect the rights of those workers. What it doesn’t do is collectively bargain a contract, because it takes two to tango on that, and NYU has refused to recognize the union (at least since the Brown decision). Of course, NYU could have chosen to continue to recognize the union even after the Brown decision, voluntarily, but its administration chose not to do so, instead sparking a multi-month strike. What the NLRB can do is require that the employer recognize the union and bargain with it in good faith under the terms of the National Labor Relations Act. (If graduate employees are properly recognized as workers, they get other protections, too, of course.) Neither the NLRA nor employer recognition has any baring on whether or not there’s a union.


Lemuel Pitkin 10.28.10 at 3:50 pm

lt is the expert here. But the original poist is a bit misleading — the Bush-era ruling was not that grad students were not permitted to unionize, but simply that they could not take use the NLRB process for doing so — federally supervised elections, etc. There was never any prohibition on voluntary recognition by the university.

To find positive prohibitions on grad student unions, you need to go to public universities in the various (mostly Southern) states where public employee unionization is illegal.

Also, whenever this subject comes up I feel obliged to point out that while the overwhelming bulk of attention in liberal forums like CT goes to the handful of unionization attempts at elite private schools, the graduate student union movement in the US is almost entirely a movement of students at state schools, who are not affected by this decision at all.


Lemuel Pitkin 10.28.10 at 3:57 pm

(Just to clarify a bit — in the US, state employees, including graduate employees at state universities, are not covered by federal labor law, such as the NLRA.)


giotto 10.28.10 at 3:59 pm

#5: It is a bit disingenuous to suggest that the graduate students at NYU have had a labor union all along. A union is a specific sort of legal entity and as such its existence depends on legal recognition. A group of people claiming to be, or to be part of, a union is just that: a group of people claiming to be or to be part of a union. No legal recognition, no union. Likewise, I can claim my partner and I are married, but because marriage is a legal status, my claim is empty unless I’ve secured that status from the relevant governmental body. See also corporations, and etc… The fact that GSOC is associated with and funded by the UAW does not magically transform the GSOC into a union.

I go to the trouble of pointing this out because I hope the best for the NYU grad students, but I’m familiar with the sort of rhetoric on display in #5, and it turned many graduate students against the unionization efforts at the private university where I attended graduate school. Organizers seemed to think that we would all sign on if they just threw enough spin at us. And that spin edged into outright lying on occasion. Many of us decided we could trust neither the local organizers nor its umbrella organization. The organizers never had majority support (though they constantly tried to claim they did…) and they really had only themselves to blame. I arrived to graduate school as a former union member (warehouse work: the sort of thing that gets a person back into school!) and was predisposed to support the unionization effort, but the disingenuousness, the lying, and the gratuitous manichaeanism had me reconsidering pretty quickly. It was disappointing, to say the least.


giotto 10.28.10 at 4:00 pm

oops. the numbers changed while I was writing. post 9 is in response to jacob @ #6


Norwegian Guy 10.28.10 at 4:12 pm

When trade unions were first formed, they certainly did not have legal recognition. Often they were in fact banned. The employers of course refused to negotiate with them, until they unions forced them to. But they were still trade unions all along, wheter they were legal or illegal.


lt 10.28.10 at 4:12 pm

BTW, the last paragraph of the orginal post is delicious in its irony: back when the NYU case went to the NLRB, they were trying to argue that students weren’t employees because TA/GA work is all part of the educational mission of grad school, and there was a big push to get programs to make it a requirement of the degree in order to prove this. So admitting otherwise in service of a different bad argument seems to have hurt them.

FWIW, the text of the Brown decision is here: LP is right, of course, although the odds of private schools granting volunetary recognition while this decision, reaffirming that grad students aren’t really employees, were pretty slim, meaning that this reversal could be important.


jacob 10.28.10 at 6:06 pm

Norwegian Guy responded adequately to Giotto, so perhaps I don’t need to. I will only say that Giotto’s claim that a union only exists when recognized by an employer negates an awful lot of the history of the labor movement in the United States and elsewhere. It also presupposes a very particular model of labor organizing–one that excludes, say, the IWW, which traditionally does not seek official or legal recognition (although sometimes does nowadays).

This is relevant because of Lemuel’s claim that there are southern states that ban public employee unions. Without in any way diminishing the problems of state labor law regimes in those states, it’s not that public employee unions are banned, it’s that collective bargaining is banned. Collective bargaining is only one–albeit large–part of what unions do. This is attested to by the existence, in North Carolina, of UE local 150, the State Employees Union of North Carolina, the North Carolina Association of Educators, all of which are unions, and none of which have the legal ability to collectively bargain.


jacob 10.28.10 at 6:11 pm

Incidentally, should any of you be interested in learning about the fight to repeal the prohibition on pubic employee collective bargaining, I urge you to go to the website of the North Carolina HOPE (Hear Our Public Employees) Coalition: The prohibition is a vestige of Jim Crow and is illegal under international law.


Lemuel Pitkin 10.28.10 at 8:02 pm


You are right, I expressed that sloppily. And in fact, it’s my understanding that in Texas — and I assume in other states where collective bargaining by public employees is prohibited — there are processes of “consultation” with unions that provide a more or less effective substitute for formal negotiations over working conditions and pay.


StevenAttewell 10.28.10 at 8:27 pm

Lemuel Pitkin at 7 –
Speaking as an elected officer of UAW 2865, the union for Academic Student Employees at the University of California, it does matter to us whether ASE unionization succeeds in private universities.

Firstly, there’s the issue of solidarity – all workers have the right to form a union, and all unions should be recognized by their employers and given the rights and protections offered to them under the law. We’re all in the same boat when it comes to trying to make graduate student work a livable and dignified proposition.

Secondly, there’s the issue of the labor market as a whole – while the elite private schools are a small proportion of academia overall, NLRB rulings also apply to thousands upon thousands of non-elite private universities. The original Brown decision made it a lot harder to organize there as well.

Thirdly, the more grad students are organized across academia, the more we get a knock-on effect: administrators and professors who come from unionized institutions are more used to dealing with unions as a legitimate institution; grad students are more aware of what unions are and how important they are, especially if they went to a unionized university when they were undergrads; and the movement also gains a larger voice on the national stage, especially in reference to labor rights and higher education.


Lemuel Pitkin 10.28.10 at 8:37 pm

Well, I’m speaking as a former elected official of UAW Local 2322, which represents graduate employees at the University of Massachusetts. So there.

Anyway, all your points are correct, strategically. But personally, come on, doesn’t the disproportionate attention to grad unions at private schools bug you even a little?


StevenAttewell 10.28.10 at 9:01 pm


Yah, a bit. On the other hand, I joined the union because I was an undergrad during the Columbia strike. My French TA showed us his W2 form where it marked out “employee-XXX” and “employer-Columbia University” – most effective demonstration of the ridiculousness of the administration’s position I’d seen yet.


POWinCA 11.01.10 at 10:57 pm

I was a grad student at the University of Illinois when they began the drive for unionization. Although I opposed the union, I think the argument that we were merely students and not employees was specious. That said, the proposed union was sleazy in their methods. Using a ‘card check’ system, they told grad students that signing the card was a ‘vote to have a vote’ when, in fact, the card check would have been a binding vote if the courts sided with the ’employee’ position.

Like all unions, they restrict supply to achieve higher wages and benefits. The number of teaching assistants at the University of Michigan went flat, despite student growth, the moment the union was instituted. This translated into greater class sizes and more rejection letters for aid or admissions to future grad students. Other university budgets were stressed and this put upward pressure on tuition. The unions achieve gains for themselves at the expense of everyone else, including prospective union members.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the only university which denied my admission was the only one that had an existing grad student union. The victims are invisible. Unlike auto workers whose greed results in their own unemployment, grad student unions put future generations of grad students out of work (and out of school).

I feel I was well-paid as a TA and was often offered supplementary opportunities to teach for more income. It was mainly the TAs from Fine Arts and foreign languages and other liberal arts which felt underpaid. They apparently never learned the lessons of economics that wages are based on one’s marginal revenue product. With low demand for these practically worhless majors, demand for their labor was low. And they conveniently ignored the in-kind benefit of free tuition. It’s ironic that dropout rates and time to complete the PhD were much higher, on average, for these ‘career’ TAs. For the rest of us, the opportunity cost of remaining in grad school was so high, we worked hard to get out fast.

One only need to look at the massive deficits and underfunded pensions in California to see the inherent dangers of public sector unions or any union where the collective bargainers and the administration are separated from the primary stakeholders: voters or undergrads.


StevenAttewell 11.02.10 at 9:53 pm

Wow…that’s completely wrong.

1. In order to hold a vote to unionize, you have to…present checked cards indicating that people want to form a union. So whether the employer agrees to “card check neutrality” or not, the process of unionizing always includes signing those cards.
2. TA unions do not control hiring and firing at any university – that’s strictly a management perogative. The fact that you yourself weren’t accepted isn’t proof of anything – did you apply to the organized UC or UWash or UMass? for example – but rather a reason why data is not the plural of anecdote. It’s actually in the interests of the union for the number of TAs to grow – more working members, more strength – and it’s historically the departments and disciplines themselves that act as market-restricting guilds to prevent over-saturation.
3. Average graduate TA salary at UMichigan is $15,000 a year, which is fairly close to the national average for TAs; it’s also equivalent to the average unemployment benefit. It also puts one in the bottom 3% of households in the U.S. TAs are not well-paid. In-kind tuition benefits (which are often the result of union contracts, as is the case here at the UC) are a red herring – if the universities didn’t grant them, they’d have to pay the equivalent in wages because no one could afford to go to graduate school in that case.
4. Massive deficits in California are the result of a revenue collapse, not a spending spree; if public sector unions were inherently dangerous, wouldn’t they push their employers to fully fund their pensions? The data doesn’t add up here.

Comments on this entry are closed.