The Issue of Graduate Student Unionization

by Eddie Kim


Graduate students at private universities across the country are preparing themselves for the end of August, 2016, when they expect the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to pass down a major decision concerning unionization laws at their respective institutions. Rather than engage with how the NLRB should rule on the case, this articles aims to aid those who are apprehensive or confused about graduate student unions; apprehension and confusion being the prevailing sentiments that I’ve encountered thus far in my conversations concerning the topic.

Why now?

Graduate student unionization mainly began during the 1960’s, in tandem with the unionizing efforts of full time professoriat. Thus far grad student unionization has been contingent upon a legal classification: graduate students must be legally recognized as “employees” to be covered under collective bargaining laws. Though all interested parties generally agree that being a student does not in and of itself command employee status, many graduate students do perform paid work for their institutions in the form of teaching or research. The disagreement hangs on whether the work done by these grad students is simply part of the student experience (ergo labor laws are not applicable or necessary), or if the work resembles a traditional employee context (labor laws are applicable or necessary). Because public universities are public, every state’s particular state laws determine the unionization rights of grad students at such universities. However, the status of graduate students at private universities falls under the jurisdiction of the NLRB.

This decision has vacillated tremendously throughout the past. The NLRB ruled in a 1951 decision that all private university employees did not fall under the protection of union laws, precluding graduate student unionization altogether. In the 1970’s, the NLRB reversed the decision for private university employees, but subsequently clarified that private university grad students did not qualify as employees. In 2000, the NLRB reversed the decision and recognized said grad students as employees; but reversed the decision again in 2004. In 2011 they maintained that the 2004 ruling still stood, but allowed NYU grad students to appeal the decision in 2012. Now in 2016, the composition of the sitting members of the NLRB (most of whom are Obama appointed Democrats), the pressure of the upcoming presidential elections, the pattern of recent decisions, the choice to revisit the case at all, and the mounting demand for grad student unionization, suggest that the NLRB will again vote in favor of grad student unions at private universities by the end of the summer.

What will the unionization process look like?

If the NLRB votes in favor of recognition, grad students at private universities will need to hold a vote on whether to form a union. Contingent upon a vote with a majority outcome in favor of unionization, the institution will be compelled to recognize its working grad students as a unionized entity. The newly formed union, presumably via elected representatives, would then negotiate a contract with the institution. Generally, the institution would negotiate to have the union represent as few individuals as possible, and the union would seek to represent as many individuals as possible.

However, the process at each institution may differ considerably depending on the competing forces of support for or against unionization, not only from students, but also administrators, faculty, and employees in similar lines of work. Graduate student unions and unionization efforts have often partnered with larger union organizations, both traditional higher education bargaining agents (e.g. AFT, AAUP, and NEA), as well as traditional “industrial type” unions, including the United Auto Workers, the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, the Communication Workers of America, and the United Electrical Workers. The reasons for why a graduate student union would partner with a particular union, or partner at all, are beyond the scope of this article, but I direct curious readers to Julius & Gumport (2003) for further details on the subject.

What will unionization mean for me?

The honest answer is that nobody can really know what will happen at any given institution if the students successfully form a union. If a student does not perform work for their institution, grad student unionization could mean relatively little to them. For those students who do work, legal recognition as an employee and protection under labor laws nearly guarantee a negotiable contract. However, the content of any contract will depend on the negotiation strategies of the union and administration, and will tend to reflect the grievances of the graduate students at the particular institution, as well as the bargaining power of the particular union. But as an example, unions at other universities, both private and public, have established or negotiated for a number of items including: formalized grievance procedures, higher stipends, better health coverage (particularly mental), and specific policies for wages, hours, vacations, and parental leave.

Few academic studies have empirically investigated the effects of unionization for graduate students, much less for graduate students at private universities specifically. But said studies have been fairly consistent with one another, in both research questions and results. Hewitt (2000) found that administrators at universities which were currently organizing union drives often expressed concerns about formalizing the previously candid relationships between faculty and graduate students. But faculty at universities which already had graduate student collective bargaining did not have negative attitudes towards graduate student bargaining, nor did they believe it interfered with their ability to advise, instruct, or mentor their grad students. Julius and Gumport (2003) found no conclusive evidence in their analysis that collective bargaining in and of itself compromises the student-faculty relationship or results in faculty unwillingness to serve as mentors. In fact, the authors found that the clarification of roles and employment policies afforded by contractual agreements could actually enhance mentor relationships; a result corroborated by Rikard and Nye (1997).* 

What are the major reasons for or against unionization?

I have largely tried to avoid engaging with points directly for or against unionization, not only because my personal stance on the issue would likely skew the presentation, but more importantly because unionization and its impact will be highly specific to each institution. Therefore, rather than open Pandora’s Box and explicitly list any reasons here, I encourage the reader to research their specific context and institution. I do not believe that unionization is in the best interest of every graduate student at every private university; we graduate students are a diverse group, after all. But nor do I believe that apprehension or confusion are reasons to vote against unionization. As graduate students, we have no excuse for neglecting to seek out pertinent information. After all, among other things, it’s our job to learn.


*FOOTNOTE: [Though this collection of studies may seem to imply a bias, I actually was only able to find these three in my earnest search for empirical scholarly articles on the subject.]

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