In 2016, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that student researchers and teaching assistants at private universities have the right to collectively bargain, starting a wave of graduate student organizing. But in September, Trump’s NLRB made an about-face with a newly-proposed rule that would undercut the right for those students to unionize.
At the heart of the issue is whether or not students who perform work at a university can be considered employees, an issue the NLRB has flip-flopped on over the past 20 years. Now, the board is taking the position that “the relationship these students have with their school is predominately educational rather than economic” — a distinction that Miranda Sklaroff, a second-year PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania calls “a false dichotomy.”
“We are students, but we work a huge number of unrecognized hours that are far outside the educational model,” Sklaroff, a member of GET-UP, the school’s graduate student union, told Inequality.org, questioning how a model in which the school pays graduate workers their livelihood could not be an economic relationship. “We perform labor: in our research, teaching, and taking on administrative duties at the University.”
Rithika Ramamurthy — a doctoral candidate at Brown and a co-chair of Brown’s graduate student employee union’s bargaining committee — agreed. “I would dare any member of that board to come and prepare lectures three times a week, grade a hundred papers over the course of a semester, contribute to award-winning research with faculty, coach and educate students at every academic level, and then tell us to our faces that this is not a job, and hence not an economic relationship,” Ramamurthy said.
“This is an evasive and insulting tactic that is meant to deliberately devalue our work in the name of an antiquated idea that academia is an apprenticeship.”
That’s why graduate students are fighting back. The new rule is open to public comment for 60 days before it can be adopted by the NLRB. Graduate students and the unions that represent them want to make sure the board hears their opposition. They’ve already submitted hundreds of comments in the first week alone.
“We are planning on flooding the NLRB comments submissions with the many ways that show what we do is work, and that our work deserves to be recognized as such,” Ramamurthy said. “We hope to signal that we have power together, just like any group of workers in any other industry.”
What should the board expect to learn from the comment process? “I think that the NLRB will hear very familiar stories of credit card debt, parenting struggles, medical bills, out-of-pocket costs, lack of schedule control, meager salary, and minimal job security,” Ramamurthy said. “I think that these stories will be familiar because they represent a larger labor trend in this country of cutting corners at the expense of labor protections and fair compensation.”
It’s not too surprising that the responses are already pouring in. “I think it can be incredibly hard to hear that your labor doesn’t count for anything, even though many of us knew that this ruling was coming, and graduate worker unions have come together to organize an amazing response,” Sklaroff said. “I also think there has been such an amazing outpouring simply because none of us are willing to give up, ever.”
That’s why the fight over graduate student organizing doesn’t begin and end with the NLRB rule. Despite what the board says, grad students know exactly how much the highly unequal private university system depends on them to function. University administrators take home millions in executive compensation in an academic year, while the median pay for a graduate teaching assistant is about $34,000.
Universities frame the work as a trade-off where graduate students “struggle in the present on the promise that it will lead to secure and stable employment in the future,” according to Ramamurthy. “This is not the state of the academic labor market, nor is it a fair or equitable reflection of the way that university labor actually works.”
The Economic Policy Institute has found that universities increasingly depend on graduate assistants and non-tenure track faculty, as the growth of those positions outpaces the growth of tenured and tenure-track positions, which have significantly higher pay and offer much more stability. Not only does that leave graduate students with more work while they’re in schools, but it also means their future job prospects are diminished after graduation as well.
In other words, “an entire generation of academic workers is being let down and taken advantage of by their universities,” Ramamurthy said. “I think people should know that the labor movement is building momentum and that the current model of the university is unsustainable and cannot continue forever.”
“The adjunctification of the university job market — the change from many full-time, salaried professorships with stability and benefits — to a series of extremely undercompensated impermanent lectureships, has ramifications across academia,” Sklaroff said. “One is that graduate students know that they are getting a not-so-great deal. Add to that the incredible increase in compensation for university administration and you have a pressure-cooker of class unrest.”
“I also think that graduate students simply want more say over their lives,” said Sklaroff. “We don’t want to be paid hardly anything for teaching. We want to own our research. We don’t want to work for institutions that venerate slave-holders or invest in fossil fuels. It is part of a collective awakening within and without the labor movement. We deserve workplace democracy.”