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Graduate Students Are Workers: The Decades-Long Fight for Graduate Unions, and the Path Forward

The NLRB’s ruling that teaching and research assistants at Columbia University are workers and are legally protected is historic.

Graduate student workers publicly launch their union drive at Columbia University on December 5, 2014. (Photo: David Klassen)

In the summer of 2004, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the five-member body which adjudicates US labor law, ruled that graduate student teaching assistants and research assistants at Brown University were “primarily students, and not workers.” The Bush-appointee-dominated board’s ruling had immediate implications for graduate students at private universities, who had won protected status under the National Labor Relations Act four years earlier, when the board had ruled in favor of graduate employees’ organizing efforts at New York University (NYU).

The NYU administration, freed by the Brown University ruling from its obligation to negotiate a second contract with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC), the first, and to this day, only union to win recognition at a private university (and twice, at that), elected to use the NLRB to break the union. In an attempt to force the recalcitrant administrators back to the bargaining table, NYU’s graduate employees went on strike on November 9, 2005, and remained on strike well into May of the following year. It was, and remains, the longest strike in the history of the US academic labor movement.

Striking graduate student workers picket outside NYU’s Bobst Library in November 2005. (Photo: Steve Fletcher)Striking graduate student workers picket outside NYU’s Bobst Library in November 2005. (Photo: Steve Fletcher)

As a first year graduate student at NYU in 2005, I experienced the strike firsthand, organizing colleagues across the university to vote to strike and walk the picket lines. As the weeks turned into months, there were long debates on the picket line and in innumerable meetings over strategy and tactics. Could we both force NYU to return to the bargaining table of its own accord through direct action, and also utilize political pressure at the federal level to reverse the Brown decision and restore legal protections and labor rights to graduate student teaching and research assistants? Even with broad support across the graduate employee labor movement, it was hard to wrap our heads around how we could bring NYU to the table, much less undo Brown.

Graduate employees will no longer have to engage in stultifying debate against the false premise that what they do is not work.

Today NYU graduate employees are once again unionized. After 10 years of organizing, the GSOC, officially known as GSOC-United Auto Workers (UAW), won a second contract with the administration last spring. And this week, on August 23, 2016, the NLRB announced that it was finally overturning Brown after 12 years, ruling that Columbia University graduate employees (save those whose research is funded by outside foundations) are indeed workers. The decision will permit graduate employees at Columbia to hold a union representation election, 14 years after the board confiscated and ultimately destroyed the ballots of an earlier unionization drive at the university. Perhaps more importantly, the board has restored to graduate employees at private universities the legal rights and protections which US labor law extends to those whose work it recognizes as such. Aaron Greenberg, chair of the Local 33 graduate employee unionization campaign at Yale recently chartered by UNITE HERE, which represents the food service, maintenance, clerical and technical workers on campus, told Truthout that Local 33’s members are “ecstatic…. The law now recognizes the work that we do and that we have a right to unionize and to organize.”

Graduate student workers take part in a civil disobedience action on April 27, 2006, as part of the 2005-2006 GSOC-UAW strike at NYU. (Photo: Tracy Neumann)Graduate student workers take part in a civil disobedience action on April 27, 2006, as part of the 2005-2006 GSOC-UAW strike at NYU. (Photo: Tracy Neumann)One would be hard pressed to gather from breathless headlines in the academic trade press that endlessly re-stage the same bad-faith debate — “Are unions an appropriate forum for graduate employee representation? Are grad employees workers?” — that such unions have existed as recognized bargaining units for nearly half a century. The first attempts to organize graduate students at the University of Wisconsin (UW) took place in 1962. The Teaching Assistants Association (TAA) first bargained on behalf of UW’s teaching assistants in 1969. It did so for 42 years, and today continues to fight for graduate students’ labor rights in the face of the state government’s attacks on public-sector collective bargaining.

Long before the TAA, there were attempts to organize graduate student unions at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1930s, and again in the 1960s. And the TAA itself was hardly alone, riding a wave of faculty and graduate student organizing which also led to the University of Michigan’s Graduate Employee Organization (formed in 1970) and the University of Oregon’s Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (formed in 1975).

Picket signs lie in a heap after a graduate student worker picket at NYU on November 10, 2005. (Photo: Tracy Neumann)Picket signs lie in a heap after a graduate student worker picket at NYU on November 10, 2005. (Photo: Tracy Neumann)It’s common for advocates to point out that there have been graduate employee unions at public universities for decades, and none of the apocalyptic prophesies proffered by anti-union administrators, legislators and jurists have been realized. Less well known is the longer history of graduate employee organizing at private universities. Almost immediately after the NLRB extended its jurisdiction to workers at private universities, teaching assistants began to organize. In 1972, teaching assistants at Yale engaged in a series of rolling grade strikes, raising stipends by as much as 100 percent in some departments. This culminated in the formation of the short-lived Teaching Assistants Organization. In the 1980s and 1990s, new organizing drives at Yale, the University of California, the University of Minnesota, the University of Washington and the University of Iowa inspired more campaigns — at the University of Illinois, at the University of Maryland and at NYU. Glossing over this history aligns with administrative anti-union arguments that unions do not belong in private institutions. It maintains the fiction that academic labor unions are novel, intrusive and disruptive, when in fact graduate employees have been organizing them since many current university presidents were children. It also underscores how important and how overdue this week’s ruling really is.

When the GSOC won representation and its first contract in the early 2000s, new organizing drives began at Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell and Brown. With GSOC’s recertification in 2013, organizing began again at many of these institutions, but also took off at schools like Harvard and The New School, which had never been part of the wave of pre-Brown graduate employee organizing. Over the past 12 years, while graduate employee organizing at private universities was mostly trapped in a holding pattern, it continued at public institutions like the University of Connecticut, where graduate employees formed a UAW local in 2014. Across the US, organizing by adjunct teachers and post-doctoral workers has exploded, with unions forming everywhere from local Catholic institutions to prestigious and wealthy, globally known research universities like Duke and Georgetown. The NLRB’s recent Columbia decision means that graduate employees at private universities can rejoin this broader movement of contingent academic workers, that they can ally with adjuncts, food service and maintenance workers, faculty and other campus staff to build a broad movement to transform how higher education functions as an employer. This week’s decision may well spark dozens of new organizing campaigns.

“We have a path to victory, and we feel really pleased with the decision, really excited about our path forward.”

The questions that the Columbia decision settles — whether graduate employees are workers and whether unions are appropriate to higher education — are questions whose answers virtually everyone has agreed, save university administrators, their lawyers and their lobbyists. During the NYU strike, picketers playfully mocked the logic of the Brown decision and the university administration, chanting, “If we’re not workers, then we’re not working!” This week, the majority of the labor board announced that it has “no difficulty” affirming that graduate students are workers. Nor should it — teaching assistants and research assistants work long hours for low wages, producing significant value for their institutions and often receiving little in return. It’s unionization, which, in many instances, has allowed graduate employees access to affordable health care. The GSOC’s first contract at NYU raised pay by an average of almost 40 percent across all departments, less a testament to how much students were earning after the contract, than how little they were being paid prior to it.

Graduate student workers and undergraduate supporters picket on November 30, 2005, as part of the GSOC-UAW strike at NYU. (Photo: Tracy Neumann)Graduate student workers and undergraduate supporters picket on November 30, 2005, as part of the GSOC-UAW strike at NYU. (Photo: Tracy Neumann)

In the Columbia decision, the majority ruled, “There is undoubtedly a significant economic component to the relationship between universities, like Columbia, and their student assistants,” noting that “on average, private nonprofit colleges and universities generate a third of their revenue from tuition.” Importantly, the board threw out the Brown argument that the instructional character of graduate student labor made it not-labor, offering this explanation:

The fact that teaching may be a degree requirement in many academic programs does not diminish the importance of having students assist in the business of universities by providing instructional services for which undergraduate students pay tuition. Indeed, the fact that teaching assistants are thrust wholesale into many of the core duties of teaching — planning and giving lectures, writing exams, etc., including for such critical courses as Columbia’s Core Curriculum — suggests that the purpose extends beyond the mere desire to help inculcate teaching skills.

University administrators have been quick to respond to Columbia with a boilerplate approach that is even more disingenuous now than it was a decade ago. While clinging desperately to the increasingly tenuous claim that graduate employees aren’t workers, a claim belied by the many hours teaching assistants and research assistants spend grading, teaching, preparing for class and meeting with students, university administrations and their organizations have also cynically continued to claim that unions threaten academic freedom and instruction.

The amicus brief filed in February by several Ivy League universities against the union in the Columbia decision parrots the language the NYU administration used 11 years ago to explain why it had chosen to bust GSOC. The brief adopts the NYU administration argument that the union had filed grievances that impinged on academic matters when it sought to combat the administration’s attempts to erode the bargaining unit by hiring adjuncts to teaching assistant’s courses for less money and fewer benefits than unionized teaching assistants. Another amicus brief filed by higher education lobbying associations points to graduate employees at the University of California’s fight for small class sizes (an obvious workload matter) as evidence that collective bargaining necessarily encroaches on similar territory. The cynicism here lies in the way that university administrators have, for many years, managed academic concerns as business concerns and cried foul when their employees have attempted to respond on that terrain.

Unless the combined lobbying might of the Ivy League and its union-busting law firms can prompt another Brown or a reversal by the Supreme Court, graduate employees will no longer have to engage in stultifying debate against the false premise that what they do is not work, that one can’t be both a student and a worker at the same time, and will no longer have to defend themselves against spurious arguments about the damage that unions do to a profession that management has itself steadily degraded over the last half-century. Now, the graduate employees who are holding the torch for all of those who have organized and fought for this moment for so many years can focus on fighting for important issues like child care, parental leave, health care, equitable workload and prompt and fair payment. For Aaron Greenberg, Columbia is a “major decision for the academic labor movement and the graduate employee labor movement in particular.”

“It’s exciting for us,” Greenberg told Truthout. “We have a path to victory, and we feel really pleased with the decision, really excited about our path forward.”

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