November 4, 2010

NLRB Will Reconsider Allowing Grad Students to Unionize

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The National Labor Relations Board agreed in a two-to-one decision last week to reconsider allowing graduate students to unionize, which may have overarching implications for the legal status of graduate teaching assistants at Cornell.

The National Labor Relations Board agreed in a two-to-one decision last week to reconsider allowing graduate students to unionize, which may have overarching implications for the legal status of graduate teaching assistants at Cornell.

The decision found that New York University graduate students who are trying to unionize with the United Auto Workers have the right to a full NLRB hearing.

The case will now return to the Regional Director level, where experts say the board will likely overrule the controversial precedent from a 2004 Brown University case. The Brown decision broke with the previous convention that granted graduate students collective bargaining rights.

Once the NLRB issues a full-hearing decision, Cornell graduate teaching assistants would likely be able to organize, according to NLRB Albany Resident Officer Barney Horowitz ’72. In 2002, graduate students at the University unsuccessfully attempted to gain UAW collective bargaining protection. During the midst of that unionization drive, Cornell pre-emptively began paying for graduate students’ healthcare costs.

The semantics of the recent NLRB case directly affect Cornell’s definition of graduate students.

Currently, the University must adhere to the Brown precedent that graduate teaching assistants are students, not employees. “At this juncture the ruling [under Brown] is that graduate students are students without collective bargaining protection,” Horowitz said.

The NLRB concurred.

“If graduate students are deemed employees then they have the right to form a union under collective bargaining. If they are students they are not protected,” Director of Public Affairs Nancy Cleeland said.

The University Counsel’s office was unavailable for comment as to Cornell’s position on graduate students’ legal status.

Some faculty members disagreed with the convention that graduate teaching assistants do not qualify as employees of the University.

Prof. Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research, mentioned the many ways graduate students work as employees as opposed to merely studying under a professor’s guidance.

“Nobody who looks at the reality of the current university today can argue that graduate students are not employees,” she said.

“Graduate students are used as workers in the University — they are hired to fill in wherever there are openings. The faculty doesn’t spend time teaching graduate students how to teach — they use them as employees to do the teaching for them,” Bronfenbrenner added.

There are many reasons why graduate students would opt to join a union according to Bronfenbrenner. Grad students want control over their assignments, office space, a seniority system, and dependent health insurance, she said.

Until the Brown decision is officially overruled, graduate students will continue to hold the classification of student status and further unionization efforts at many universities will be stymied.

“Once Brown is set aside, it would open up the organizing of graduate students at private universities” Horowitz added.

The recent decision in favor of NYU graduate student unionization cites that “there are compelling reasons for reconsideration” of the Brown decision.

The ruling cites NYU’s own policies as reasons that they should be classified as employees.

“NYU has classified the overwhelming majority of its graduate students who perform teaching duties as adjunct faculty and now concedes that they are employees,” the decision states.

Today, many public university graduate students are unionized, as the NLRB only has jurisdiction over private sector employees. The Brown decision remains precedent until its possible reversal at the full NLRB hearing, likely to occur in November, according to Horowitz.

Only then would Cornell be able to reconsider unionizing its graduate student faculty.

Bronfenbrenner described the circumstances of the 2002 UAW organizing attempt, which she described as a devastating blow to organizing efforts. “The campaign at Cornell was unsuccessful — the union ran a very weak campaign.”

“The union did not do a good job of building committees or a strong job of building a real movement on campus,” she said.

The union organizers lost by a large margin, a tally of 1,351 graduate students against and only 580 in favor of collective bargaining.

Bronfenbrenner predicted that Cornell would not be ahead of the curve in terms of organizing its graduate student faculty.

“Cornell is not going to get organized until after more of the urban private universities get organized.  Cornell and the other more rural universities are more challenging because they have fewer graduate students of color and students with a personal or family background in labor than the urban universities like NYU and Columbia that organized early,” she said.

Original Author: Max Schindler