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Biden Labor Board Strikes Barrier to Unionization of 1.5 Million Grad Students

Organizers are hoping that the withdrawal of a Trump-era rule rejuvenates unionization efforts among graduate students.

Participants in a Harvard graduate student strike march around Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on December 3, 2019.

Campus organizers are hoping that dozens of new unionization campaigns may be on the horizon nationwide following the recent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision to withdraw a proposed Trump-era rule that would have barred graduate students from joining a union. During his campaign, President Joe Biden had vowed to “empower the NLRB to fulfill its intended purpose of protecting workers.”

In 2019, the Trump-appointed NLRB proposed a regulation which asserted graduate students shouldn’t be considered employees, regardless of whether or not the students assisted with teaching or research. An Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report found that the proposed Trump rule would have stripped collective bargaining rights from 57,500 unionized graduate students and blocked 1.5 million graduate students from forming a union at their school.

“At a time when worker advocates are demanding that more workers have the right to a union and collective bargaining, the Trump board’s graduate teaching assistant proposal demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding that graduate teaching assistants are an integral part of the modern academic workforce,” the report stated.

The question of whether graduate students at private universities can legally unionize has been a saga at the NLRB for decades. In 2000, the agency ruled that they had the right to organize. In 2004, it reversed that decision. In 2016, a group of graduate students at Columbia University petitioned the board in their effort to unionize. The NLRB board ruled that graduate students were employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and could join unions. The Trump-era move came in direct response to the Columbia case. During his presidency, Trump stocked the NLRB with anti-labor appointees who had deep connections to union busting.

Despite the fact that graduate students often teach classes, assist in research, attend conferences, lead field trips and hold office hours, they can make as little as $20,000 a year. It’s tremendously difficult for students to fight for higher wages or expanded benefits because most aren’t even considered workers by their employers.

Amid NLRB News, a Strike at Columbia

Columbia’s graduate students are currently back in the news because they’re on strike. They’ve been trying to negotiate a fair contract with the school for two years and, after members overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike last spring, they set March 15 as a deadline for the work stoppage. On that day, graduate students walked off the job.

The students are demanding an increase of their stipend over the next three years, a union shop so they have the resources to negotiate contracts, a health care fund, and neutral third party arbitration for harassment/discrimination claims. They also want full recognition of their bargaining unit consistent with NLRB certification, which they say is a commitment the school has abandoned.

Ki Young Kim is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia, a teaching assistant, and member of the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW (GWC-UAW). He told Truthout that everyone would much rather be doing their jobs, but have been forced into a strike by the administration.

“We have a lot of community support,” Kim said. “Many of my students have expressed support. The university often tries to claim that undergraduates don’t want us to strike, but my experience is that they actually overwhelmingly support them. The atmosphere on the picket line is great.”

Kim noted that shifting to an online infrastructure during the pandemic has also increased the workload of many graduate students. “We’ve had to become more available for students in terms of different time zones, as many of them now live in different parts of the world,” he explained. “We’ve also helped students better access learning in this new format, including at times significantly or even completely changing lessons to fit the digital format, which can be quite challenging, especially in the language classes.”

Kim told Truthout that it was a relief to hear the NLRB news, as students have resisted filing grievances at the board in fear that Trump’s board would revoke the 2016 ruling. He says that the university cut health benefits in 2019 (which is illegal during a negotiation), but the union had no place to turn.

“Labor law is no substitute for organizing, but it’s a great tool to help your organizing,” said Kim.

“I think the NLRB ruling is great news for sure,” Erica Skerrett, a PhD candidate at Duke University and nominee for co-chair at Duke Graduate Students Union (DGSU) told Truthout. Skerrett said her union fought against the ruling and organized graduate students to submit comments explaining why they should be considered workers. She accompanied the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to Washington, where organizers delivered the comments to the NLRB building and blockaded the doors.

DGSU isn’t recognized by the university. It attempted to form a majority union in the wake of the Columbia decision, but was met with strong resistance from the administration. In 2017, it formed a direct-join union with the SEIU, adopting the model popularized by fast-food workers in the Fight for $15 movement. In addition to organizing for a fair contract, the union is also fighting to end workplace harassment on campus and has a number of anti-racist demands for the university, such as equitable admissions, an equitable hiring process, and divestment from policing and surveillance.

“Since we’re a direct-join union, a lot of what we do is survey other graduate workers,” Skerrett explained. “We find out what’s important to them and engage in direct action as an escalation strategy.”

Griffin Riddler, a PhD candidate in political science at the school and the other nominee for co-chair of DGSU, said that he welcomed the NLRB news and believed it spoke to the current moment. “It’s an amazing time to be a part of the labor movement in this country,” said Riddler. “Even outside of these legal changes, I think you’re starting to see a big swing back toward support for organized labor across this country. We’re very happy to be doing our part in that fight.”

“Everything Is a Battle Between Bosses and Workers in This Country”

WashU Undergraduate & Graduate Workers Union (WUGWU) is also not recognized by its administration. It’s an independent group of student workers at Washington University in St. Louis that was formed in 2016. Despite being unable to collectively bargain, it was able to secure pay raises for a number of graduate workers and helped establish a $15 minimum wage for all campus workers.

“Everything is a battle between bosses and workers in this country. It’s true in most countries, but some have better labor relations than we do and not as many biases against organizing unions,” WUGWU co-chair Trent McDonald told Truthout.

McDonald said that focusing on labor law exclusively was insufficient, but that the NLRB news was an important step forward.

“If you only follow legal channels, you’ll never organize a union in this country successfully now because the law has just become so toothless,” he told Truthout. “But anytime a roadblock gets removed, which is what’s happening here, it’s a good thing.”

The new NLRB is expected to clear a number of additional roadblocks under Biden. The administration moved fast in regards to the agency, firing General Counsel Peter Robb in January after he refused to resign. Generally, the party in power appoints three seats appoints two. However, the removal of Robb has allowed the administration to move forward with its labor agenda despite currently having only one Democrat on the board. The next vacancy opens up in August, so we’re still months away from a Democratic-controlled NLRB, but Robb’s replacement Peter Ohr has already withdrawn ten separate guidance memos that had been issued by his predecessor.

While graduate students welcome these developments, Skerrett points out that workers need the kind of results that transcend the White House.

“I follow these developments in my free time,” she told Truthout. “I study biomedical engineering, I’m not a labor expert at all. However, I try to educate myself politically on what the state of union protection is in this country. I’m excited about the PRO Act being passed in the House and hoping that becomes an organizing tool we can all fight behind. I’m hoping that we will eventually be seen as workers, not just depend on which party has the presidency.”

Note: This article was updated to clarify the nature of Ki Young Kim’s involvement in the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW.

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