Why It’s a Game-Changer to Let Grad Students Unionize

At most private universities, graduate students aren’t just students Ė they’re also employees. Serving as teaching assistants and researcher assistants, these students play a vital role in keeping the school’s academic programs running.

At the same time, these students don’t receive many of the benefits that a more traditional employee would enjoy. That’s precisely why this week’s new ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is so monumental: finally, grad students employed by their schools will be entitled to unionize.

In a 3-1 vote, the NLRB sided with graduated students working at Columbia University and overturned a previous decision. Moving forward, graduate students will be entitled to all collective-bargaining rights that other employees are guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act.

Student workers at Columbia hadn’t been asking for anything unreasonable: a living wage, an explicit system to register and address workplace complaints and representation. The fact that academia, which generally preaches progressive perspectives, can then try to deprive their workers of basic employee rights just shows how hypocritical many of these institutions can be.

Back in 2004, NLRB members took the side of school administrators and decided grad student workers were not entitled to bargaining rights. Universities have argued that since the students are students foremost, turning them into regular employees would somehow taint their educational experiences.

Now, however, the board members ruled that their previous ban had “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the [National Labor Relations] Act without a convincing justification.”

After all, why shouldn’t colleges be able to provide graduate students with both a proper education and fair working conditions? As The Nation’s Michelle Chen writes, “If a university can’t handle those dual roles as an educational institution and a workplace, it arguably has no business exploiting grad students to carry out one of a university’s most important revenue-producing activities.”

To be fair, there are a few examples where colleges have voluntarily decided to acknowledge and negotiate with student-led union groups, but that has not been the case on a large scale. NPR expects that the new decision will encourage tens of thousands of student employees at schools across the country to unionize in the upcoming months.

In the past, the NLRB has even had to fight in court to protect worker rights of professors and other non-school employees, which just goes to show how some universities would be content to be exempt from most labor rules if allowed.

Alas, the NLRB was not as helpful a year ago when the Northwestern football team sought the right to unionize. While the NCAA ultimately won out in not having to label its players “employees,” it’s hard to disregard the athletes’ position that they put in full-time work hours practicing for the team and break in literally millions of dollars for the school.

Still, this decision pertaining to graduate students might be a sign that the NLRB is finally reconsidering how such profitable higher education institutions can argue shirk their basic obligations to the students who do so much work for them.

Now get to unionizing, grad students! Your schools need you as much as you need them.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

67 comments

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 years ago

Why do students need to unionize?

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Wendi M.
Wendi M2 years ago

TYFS

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Marie W.
Marie W2 years ago

Thanks

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natasha salgado
Past Member 2 years ago

thanks

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Teresa Antela
Teresa Antela2 years ago

Ty

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william Miller
william Miller2 years ago

thanks

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Randy Q.
Past Member 2 years ago

Thanks!

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Randy Q.
Past Member 2 years ago

Thanks!

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Margie FOURIE
Margie FOURIE2 years ago

Thank you

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