The National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that graduate student workers at private universities have the right to organize unions. The result of a petition by graduate students at Columbia University seeking recognition by the United Automobile Workers, the ruling reversed a 2004 ruling under a Bush-era National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that graduate students at Brown University were not workers, but “primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.”
The decision comes at the same time as a sharp uptick in graduate worker organizing at other private universities. It also comes roughly one year after graduate workers at New York University won a contract for the second time, after a protracted struggle led to voluntary union recognition by the university administration, making NYU the first and only graduate worker union at a private university in the country.
The NLRB ruling, coupled with the recent NYU contract victory, should kick off a surge of graduate worker union activism at private universities around the country.
But the history of graduate worker organizing shows that these wins don’t come easy. They require constant rank-and-file action against university administration attacks.
For graduate workers around the country, the labor board ruling is just the beginning.
This is the second reversal the NLRB has made on graduate worker unions at private institutions. In 2000, the Board ruled that NYU graduate student TAs and RAs were workers after they waged a two-year organizing campaign demanding recognition from the university.
NYU graduate workers then won a contract, with a 40 percent stipend increase and significant decrease in health care costs. The victory sparked successful organizing campaigns of NYU’s clerical workers and adjunct faculty, and helped add fuel to the fires of organizing efforts at Colombia, Yale, and Brown.
In 2004, Brown workers used the NYU decision as the basis for a petition for union recognition. (Though NYU workers were able to force the administration to grant union recognition voluntarily, most bosses refuse to do this — requiring, in most cases, an NLRB-sponsored secret ballot election. If the majority of workers vote in favor of the union, they win recognition.)
Unfortunately, by that time the NLRB’s composition had already shifted. The Bush appointees brought a rightward swing to the Board’s position on graduate unions. They ruled against the Brown workers, overturning the NYU decision.
Even more crushing was NYU’s unilateral de-recognition of the union after the contract expired. This resulted in a semester-long strike in spring 2005, with a vote to strike from 85 percent of union members. NYU graduate workers faced intimidation from some professors, firings, cutting stipends, and arrests.
Spring semester came to a close with no change in NYU’s position, and the graduate workers thoroughly demoralized and internally divided. They picked up organizing again the following year, continuing for eight years without recognition until an agreement was reached between the UAW and the university administration in 2013.
In some ways, the current moment might seem like déjà vu. The NLRB has once again ruled in favor of grad unions. But what is there to stop another reversal of the board’s opinion later on down the line, resulting in another crushing defeat?
While the legal circumstances may seem similar, it is more likely that this represents the last major legal offense against the notion that graduate students are university workers. What has changed this time around is not the NLRB itself but the degree of organizing at all levels of the university.
There is a growing recognition among academic workers that the assault on working conditions in the university can only be pushed back through seeing themselves the way universities tacitly see them: as workers who create value for the university through their labor.
The numbers tell a bleak tale. The proportion of tenured and tenure-track professors has declined to one-third, down from three-quarters five decades ago.
Many PhD students finish their degree only to find themselves shuffled between various adjunct positions, which pay a national average of $2,700 per class — earning adjunct professors around $22,000 a year for a full course load, usually without benefits.
According to Glassdoor, graduate student salaries range from $21,000 to $35,000. The University of California–Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education reports that around one-fourth of part-time college faculty receive some sort of public assistance to get by.
At large research universities, growing casualization of faculty positions has been complimented with a growing reliance on graduate teaching assistants. While around one-third of instructors at such universities are adjuncts, a further 16 percent of course instructors are graduate students.
There is much evidence that many graduate students work many more hours than their purported part-time commitment to the university. Assisting faculty in their research, working as teaching assistants in large introductory courses, teaching their own courses, and mentoring undergraduates and more junior graduate students — all of this is labor which the university profits from directly or indirectly through undergraduate tuition dollars and grants.
This while the cost for a college degree has increased at around 6 percent above the rate of inflation for decades, with evidence that these increases are not being passed onto the salaries of those who teach students, but rather onto high-level administrative salaries.
These increasing pressures and glaring inequities have created a growing pushback, with unions pursuing a strategy of first increasing union density among academic workers in key cities, such as New York and Washington DC.
In the DC metropolitan area, the SEIU has reached about 80 percent union density among adjuncts, with hopes of eventually implementing collective bargaining at the metro level area.
But unions are also chasing hot shops across the country, as graduate students and adjuncts alike have been inspired by the wins of their colleagues to organize themselves independently.
As one of the negotiators for the NYU graduate worker union contract, I am constantly astounded by the number of emails I receive from other graduate workers across the United States looking for advice on how to kick off campaigns at their own universities.
It will be these rank-and-file organizers, and not the NLRB, who will determine the future of academic workplace organizing.
Graduate workers at public universities have already been allowed to unionize for decades. Looking into past contracts negotiated by these unions shows how structural factors or strategic missteps that hinder effective mobilization could impede strong contract wins, even for established unions.
The Professional Staff Congress, which represents educational workers at the City University of New York at all levels (faculty, adjunct, and graduate workers alike, as well as staff) carried out a campaign this year around bargaining for a contract that had already expired six years previously.
The contract’s salary increase “largely breaks even with inflation but does not offer raises beyond that” and “does not break the regime of opposed austerity.”
While the campaign faced multiple obstacles, a major difficulty was the New York State Taylor Law, which designates job actions like strikes by public-sector workers as illegal. Indeed, one of the strange consequences of the NLRB ruling may be a reversal in the organizing power of public versus private graduate workers.
In the last decade, public graduate unions have continued to grow as private university organizing efforts have stalled. Last week’s ruling means that graduate students at private universities will now be able to organize without a major organizing obstacle faced by most public graduate unions — namely, the prohibition on public employee strikes in thirty-nine states.
Meanwhile, the struggle at University of Missouri this past fall shows that while legal status as a union is beneficial, in the end it is a mobilized rank and file that gets the goods.
When the university threatened to strip away graduate workers’ health insurance subsidies just fourteen hours before their coverage expired, they organized a walkout. Workers then went even further, demanding more affordable housing, child care facilities, and a guarantee that no graduate worker would earn below the federal poverty line.
After a number of protests, the university restored benefits through 2017 and agreed to a pay increase. But it was too late: an organizing drive had already kicked into full gear, with a vote passing in favor of unionization in April.
In anticipation of the ruling, universities have already been pursuing a combination of tactics to discourage graduate workers from organizing.
All seven other Ivy League institutions, in addition to Stanford and MIT, filed a brief with the NLRB supporting Columbia’s anti-union stance. Nervous private university administrators across the country are already hiring anti-union PR firms to try to convince academic workers that organizing themselves will somehow tarnish the sanctity of the crumbling and under-funded ivory tower.
But that pristine ivory tower has already been “tarnished” by labor organizing for decades now — but only in public universities and at NYU. During the aggressive organizing spurt starting around 1990, the number of unionized graduate employees nearly tripled from 14,060 to 38,750 in 2001.
the administration and its proxies have already started to articulate specious narratives, contradicted by empirical evidence, about the implications of unionization. They have spent undisclosed sums on a slick, insidious, “informational” anti-union website, which was obviously prepared before the ink on the NLRB decision was dry, and shared.
The same tactics were used by the NYU administration before the graduate workers’ strike deadline last year. The administration sent out a university-wide email asserting that graduate worker demands for full health insurance coverage and fair pay were unreasonable and greedy.
They had not realized that in the lead-up to the strike deadline, the NYU graduate workers had organized alongside faculty and undergraduates, who were immunized against anti-union arguments and immediately organized to contest the university’s claims.
Growing union density and cross-campus ties has also proven to be essential for growing graduate union density nationwide. The North American Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions offers a resource for graduate workers at both private and public universities to learn from each other’s tactics in organizing and gaining recognition, winning strong contracts, and enforcing them.
The annual CGEU conference has also increasingly brought the academic labor movement into the fold of other important national struggles, kicking off organizing for Black Lives Matter and against militarized campus police last year, and a resolution this year to support the BDS movement, which followed BDS resolutions passed in spring 2016 at the University of Massachusetts, NYU, and University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The intersection of labor and academia provides a good starting point for bringing these social movements into the realm of higher education more aggressively.
National coordination across graduate unions has also helped spark a burgeoning movement to democratize these unions internally, beginning with reformers in the University of California system who took over the union in 2011 following frustration with the leadership’s poor contract negotiation and failure to join the movement to defend public education in California.
In 2014, a reform caucus took over in the middle of stalled contract negotiations at NYU, which went on to negotiate the contract now held up as a model of what a mobilized graduate-worker rank and file can achieve.
The last years of grad union organizing have shown that the power of a union ultimately lies in a fighting rank and file that can put pressure on the administration. Last week’s ruling is neither strictly necessary nor sufficient for improving working conditions in academia, but it will help immensely.
Graduate workers at private universities face an uphill battle. They will have to fight each step of the way for successful recognition, for a strong contract, and for the implementation of the contract.
But the wind is at their backs — and it’s growing stronger.