Students stand on the quad at Columbia University after the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of the Graduate Workers of Columbia.

Nicole Bengiveno / The New York Times

Students stand on the quad at Columbia University after the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of the Graduate Workers of Columbia.

August 24, 2016

CGSU Celebrates NLRB Definition of Grad Students as Workers With Right to Unionize

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Clarification appended

Cornell Graduate Students United celebrated a National Labor Relations Board announcement today ruling that graduate students are workers with the right to unionize, in a reversal of its 2004 decision.

In a 3-1 vote, the NRLB ruled in favor of The Graduate Workers of Columbia, a group which had argued that graduate workers are employees, as well as students, and thus should be protected by the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act.

“The Brown University Board’s decision, in turn, deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the [National Labor Relations] Act, without a convincing justification in either the statutory language of the policies of the Act,” the ruling said.

This reversal of the previous Brown University decision triggers provisions in an agreement reached between CGSU and Cornell’s administration in May. As the NLRB has acknowledged these workers as employees, the University will hold a campuswide union election and may form one the first collective bargaining agreements for graduate employees at a private university, according to a press release from the American Federation of Teachers, a partner of CGSU.

The Brown decision had stated that graduate students are primarily students, not employees, and therefore are not entitled to collective bargaining rights. The text of today’s reversal says that the Brown decision jeopardized “an entire category of workers …. without a convincing justification.”

“The case presents the issue of whether graduate student assistants who are admitted into, not hired by, a university, and for whom supervised teaching or research is an integral component of their academic development, must be treated as employees for purposes of collective bargaining,” said the now overturned Brown decision.

Former Brown University Provost Robert Zimmer agreed with the 2004 decision at the time, saying it recognized the academic aspects of undergraduate work.

“The NLRB correctly recognizes that a graduate student’s experience is a mentoring relationship between faculty and students, and is not a matter appropriate for collective bargaining,” he said at the time.

AFT President Randi Weingarten ’80 praised the decision for allowing private universities to join public universities in allowing graduate students to organize, calling Tuesday “a great day for workers.”

“The truth is graduate workers are the glue that holds higher education institutions together — without their labor, classes wouldn’t get taught, exams wouldn’t get graded and office hours wouldn’t be held,” she said. “The evidence considered by the board clearly showed that far from being detrimental, collective representation enhances the professor-graduate employee relationship so important to academic success.”

Many Cornell graduate students are pleased by the result of the highly anticipated decision, and say they believe it will lead enable a union to guard the rights of the graduate community.

“[The decision will] help improve the quality of graduate students’ lives,” said CGSU member Ibrahim Issa grad. “I think this will create a platform to defend our rights and form a tight knit community …Today is a big first step but there’s still much work to do.”

NYSUT President and AFT vice president Karen Magee echoed the praise of the graduate students. She added that Cornell graduate workers now have “one less hurdle to be recognized for the labor they undertake every day” and congratulated the GWC for their success.

“[Graduates] at private schools across New York state are coming together so their voices can be heard, and we’re behind them every step of the way,” she said.

A previous version of this article said that, according to the recent NLRB decision, students are employees instead of students. In fact, the decision clarifies that workers are both employees and students. 

  • Tina

    Why does this article not quote or even mention any of those who oppose this? Yes, graduate students are in an ambiguous position of being partially students, partially emloyees. But those who do more than just TAing are students more than anything. Beyond the semantics though, there plenty of objective reasons to worry about a union. The main advantages mentioned are typically greater power in negotiating with the administration, increasing stipends, and securing health care coverage.

    In reality, Cornell is already very responsive to the needs of graduate students, and there don’t seem to be many examples of the administration neglecting graduate students or ignoring their grievances. On pay, the stipends Cornell gives are nothing to laugh at. Compared to the cost of living, students can pay their rent and have half or more left over. Health care is already included. While unions brag about negotiating higher pay, they typically achieve only small increases, which are actually lower than the 4% or so rate Cornell already raises stipends annually anyway. Additionally, all students would be required to pay dues of typically $200-$500 to the union whether they want it or not.

    The unions will not likely represent all graduate students equally. Expect anthropology and literature departments to be more active than physics for example. As such, they often care more about increasing the lower stipends than increasing the stipends for science and technology students, who already earn more and won’t see the benefit; in fact, they may see an effective decrease!

    Last, unions like UAW oppose expanding the H1B visa program which is bad for international students! Do you want to pay dues to a union so that they may work against your individual interests?

    • Hume

      You make several general claims without providing any support.

      (1) Cornell is very responsive to the needs to graduate students.

      (2) There are not many examples of the administration neglecting graduate student grievances.

      (3) The union will represent humanities graduate students more than science graduate students.

      All of these claims are false. I think you should meet some CGSU members and talk about the union a bit. You would likely end up talking to grads in the sciences who can tell you many horror stories of Cornell being unresponsive to the needs of graduate students and neglecting grad student grievances.

      • Tina

        I suppose I should have made it clearer that I am a current graduate student and these are my own experiences. I have found Cornell to be excellent, and this comes as someone who has attended two other highly ranked universities in past years. I know almost no one among my peers who seems to be upset at Cornell for neglecting their needs; I can only think of one or two disputes between students and advisers about specific research projects, but nothing serious and that is not likely to be addressed by the union.

        I think it is inevitable that science students will be underrepresented. Just look at the GPSA – engineers for example are very underrepresented. I don’t mean to be blame them, but it makes sense given that scientific researchers are working on specific projects, often with deadlines, and don’t as often have time for extracurriculars. Look at other universities as well; they put more effort into raising the minimum stipend, but that doesn’t help science students who are already well above the minimum. Also, affiliation with an amalgamated labor union takes control away from Cornell graduate students. Look at UC Santa Barbara or Amherst. We may end up being forced to strike for reasons unrelated to Cornell.

        • Hume

          I accept that, in your experience, you have not personally witnessed grad students having their needs neglected. I am asserting that your generalizations that (1) Cornell is responsive to grad student needs and (2) Cornell does not neglect grad student grievances is both (a) false and (b) invalidly inferred from your experience. For, as I said above, there are many instances where Cornell has not been responsive to grad student needs and has neglected grad student grievances. If we could talk face to face, I would tell you about these cases. Of course, perhaps you’re just saying “out of sight, out of mind”. In which case, there is no reason for us to have a conversation.

          Your statement that science students will be underrepresented seems false to me. The GPSA is not an appropriate analogue to a union. For one, the GPSA has no bargaining power and does nothing substantial for any grad student. Thus there is very little incentive for any grad student to be involved in the organization to begin with. Considering the fact that CGSU — the entity actually attempting to become Cornell’s union — has a substantial number of science grads already involved, your inevitability claim seems prima facie false. I also think that your imagination about what benefits and protections a union could provide needs to be expanded beyond simple wage increases. There are many instances in which one group of grad students is currently disadvantaged compared to other groups of graduate students, and thus many potential benefits or protections could disproportionately serve one group over another.