Last Tuesday marked a win for labor relations in academia, with the National Labor Relations Board ruling that graduate students working as academic assistants at private colleges are employees with organizing rights. The 3-1 vote followed a petition from a Columbia University graduate student organization and the United Auto Workers Union, which has expanded its reach to graduate student assistants at Columbia.
Collective bargaining and unionization allow graduate student workers to advocate better for their own labor interests. The dissenter from the NLRB opposed the decision on the grounds that the relationship between graduate student assistants and universities is primarily educational and not related to work. While this may be true, graduate students have professional needs that directly impact their futures in academia. For example, graduate students depend on recommendations from professors in order to secure future jobs. The lack of collective bargaining puts graduate students in a poor position to negotiate for better working conditions.
We’ve seen how unionization has improved quality of work and life for graduate students at public colleges, where unions and collective bargaining already exist. A 2013 study at Cornell demonstrated graduate students belonging to unions receive better pay and report greater levels of personal and professional support. The study suggests the argument that collective bargaining rights will hinder student-faculty relationships and academic freedom doesn’t stand.
Some have dismissed the need for collective bargaining given that there already exist ways for graduate students to communicate their interests to those who are above them. Columbia University Provost John H. Coatsworth recently wrote a letter encouraging students to avoid collective bargaining since Columbia has “established a productive dialogue with the Graduate School Advisory Council and with other student organizations." In no other profession would “dialogue” be an acceptable substitute to organized collective bargaining.
Collective bargaining is essential to ensuring student employees can advocate for their needs, in addition to imposing much needed standardization on an often insecure arrangement. The NLRB ruling is encouraging for the future of graduate student work-life quality.
The University did not immediately respond to request for comment on the NLRB’s ruling.