“I think the decision is going to have big consequences”
A student protester holding a can of lager raises his fist during clashes with police.
Universities are supposed to be our beacons of equality—a model of intellectual freedom for the rest of society. But when it comes to unions, that’s pure fantasy.
Private academic institutions, particularly at the most well-endowed elites like Harvard, Stanford, Brown, and Columbia, have gone to great lengths to avoid collective bargaining. Adjunct professors—a job based on contract labor that leaves some teachers making less than minimum wage—have slowly been unionizing, but for grad students, who often work full-time hours teaching, grading, and assisting research in addition to their coursework, the right to bargain has been denied for the past 12 years.
Until now. In a 3-to-1 decision by the Obama-appointed National Labor Relations Board, which broke along partisan lines, graduate workers at Columbia University have been granted the right to collectively bargain. They will negotiate with the aide of the United Automobile Workers (UAW), a body which has long organized employees in higher education and currently counts over 35,000 grad students at 45 campuses as members. The ruling provides a clear path for other graduate student unions to form and appeal their administrations for recognition. There are approximately 1.5 million graduate students nationally; only about 2 percent are unionized.
"The board has the statutory authority to treat student assistants as statutory employees, where they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated,” reads part of the decision. “Statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the [National Labor Relations] Act does not reach.”
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]We instruct classes, grade papers for thousands of students, and push the boundaries of research, but administrators have stood in the way of our rights.[/quote]
For Columbia’s provost John H. Coatsworth (a man whose name clearly preordained his fate as a power player in the Ivy leagues), the decision ignores the differences between an employer/employee relationship and one based on education between a teacher and student. “Unlike university employees, graduate students who serve as teaching or research assistants come to this institution first and foremost to acquire through that work the knowledge and expertise that are essential to their becoming future scholars and teachers,” he wrote in a memo forwarded to me.
So, grad students are basically elite interns. He also claimed that universities, as institutions, are somehow different from the rest of the private sector. It’s a common line—that, deep down, the academy is a nurturing family and collective bargaining would sour its relationships—one found by the NLRB to be “unsupported by legal authority, by empirical evidence, or by the board’s actual experience.”
“In our research on grad students in public universities, we found that unionized students were paid better, and also perceived their pay and benefits as more fair and adequate,” said Sean E. Rogers, a professor at Cornell who has studied the effects of labor organization within academia. “Unions generally have a positive effect on pay, and grad student unions would probably enhance research and teaching assistant pay and benefits at private universities the way they seem to at public ones.”
The battle has been long and undoubtedly political. Graduate students at private institutions were originally given the right to organize in 2000 by a Clinton-appointed version of the NLRB after they allowed NYU students to join the UAW. But that victory proved all too temporary. Four years later, a Republican-leaning body nominated by George W. Bush reversed their decision by rejecting an appeal for unionization at Brown University.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]I think the decision is going to have big consequences.[/quote]
I spoke with Joe Ambash, an attorney with Fisher & Phillips LLP and the legal counsel to Brown during the 2004 case. He echoed Coatsworth’s contention that collective bargaining could damage teacher/student relationships and become a time-suck for administrators. “To suggest that now institutions are potentially going to have to bargain with unions about the so-called terms and conditions of employment—when these students need to do it as a requirement—confuses collective bargaining with the academic freedom of the institutions to determine what their curriculum should be,” he told me. “I think the decision is going to have big consequences.”
After Brown’s success, NYU administrators stopped recognizing its graduate worker union—a decision which stood until 2013 when the school’s administration, sensing the tides were shifting and there was suddenly a “middle ground,” reversed course. Last year, the NLRB followed suit, vowing to reconsider their classification. That promise culminated in victory for the Columbia Graduate Workers and, by extension, all graduate students.
“We are excited we have finally reached this important milestone and look forward to a speedy, fair election so we can demonstrate our majority support, and get into bargaining as soon as possible,” said Olga Brudastova, a research assistant in Columbia’s Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics. “We instruct classes, grade papers for thousands of students, and push the boundaries of research and the arts, but despite these contributions and more, Columbia administrators have stood in the way of our rights. By standing together, graduate workers have already won major, university-wide improvements, and with a union, we’ll be able to secure those improvements and make Columbia do even better.”
Just three months ago, in a curiously timed attempt at peacemaking, Coatsworth announced an expansion of parental leave and childcare subsidies, as well as compensation increases over a four-year period. It’s not just about better stipends, though. Students at Columbia and other well-endowed institutions also struggle with late pay, unpredictable health insurance policies, and maxed-out teaching loads.
Today, with the Columbia decision, the relationship between grad students and administrators is headed in a fairer direction—one of academic equality and freedom to all workers at campuses across the United States. It doesn't matter if they’re also students.
The institutions, meanwhile, are likely to appeal, if not now then later, when a federal government more sympathetic to their financial interests nominates a NLRB they can work with again.