Ivy League graduate students push for unionization

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Credit: Moon Lee/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Graduate student unionization efforts at private universities are picking up steam, with groups at Columbia University, Yale University, and most recently Harvard University pushing for recognition of their right to bargain collectively, which their colleagues at many public universities already have. At the heart of the issue is whether, in addition to being students, graduate students are also considered employees.

Graduate students’ concerns include inadequate health insurance, high prices for dependent coverage on student health insurance policies, and insufficient child care and family leave support. Another class of issues relates to administrative execution, such as late payment to graduate students and sudden changes to health insurance or other policies that affect graduate students in a negative way. “Right now, the university is not held accountable for these sorts of lapses,” says Columbia epidemiology graduate student Seth Prins, who is involved with the unionization effort there, because Columbia’s graduate students “are not recognized as workers, and we don’t have any power to compel the administration to do things. … The basic desire for having a union is ability to have collective bargaining and … to negotiate a contract that the administration is obliged to follow.”

We’ve seen that you don’t need the NLRB to decide whether you can unionize if the university is willing to grant you those negotiation rights, and we’re optimistic that the administration at Harvard would grant us that.

—Jack Nicoludis

Chandler Walker, a Columbia cell and molecular biology graduate student and a campus organizer for the United Auto Workers-affiliated union, emphasizes that it’s not about workload. “We knew what we were getting into” by going to graduate school, she says, and long hours in the lab and hard work “[are] what we signed up for.” However, she says she has been paid late multiple times and once paid about $9000 per year for her wife to be covered under her health insurance plan. “These are things I think we could negotiate over.” The union, she says, is important for “creating a voice for graduate students and having a say in our own working conditions.”

In December 2014, Columbia students submitted a petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to reconsider its most recent ruling that graduate student assistants—including teachers and researchers—are primarily students and are therefore not guaranteed the right to unionize. Hearings are currently scheduled through 13 May. Yale students have also been mobilizing for unionization for years, and Harvard graduate students are the most recent to join the fray with a public announcement in a 6 April article in the campus newspaper.

The NLRB, members of which are appointed by the president, has flip-flopped on the question of grad student unionization at private universities. In its most recent ruling, in 2004, the NLRB ruled that graduate assistants at Brown University have no right to form a labor union. A recent ruling on student athletes by a regional NLRB office has raised hopes that the board may reverse its position. In November 2013, New York University graduate students scored a major victory when the university agreed to recognize the union without an NLRB mandate. The union and the university recently agreed on a contract.

The Harvard students are in the early phases of organizing, and a lot of their strategy moving forward will depend on the NLRB’s ruling on the Columbia petition, says Harvard chemical biology Ph.D. student Jack Nicoludis. It’s an important hearing, he says, but  “it’s not the be-all-end-all decision.” “We’ve seen that you don’t need the NLRB to decide whether you can unionize if the university is willing to grant you those negotiation rights, and we’re optimistic that the administration at Harvard would grant us that. … We definitely need to have the support of all the graduate students at Harvard regardless of what the NLRB decision is.”

To gather this support, Nicoludis is recruiting other graduate students in the sciences—a task that he acknowledges is not always easy. “Apathy is one of the most common [responses] I see with graduate students in the sciences,” he says, “and I think that’s because they generally see the union effort as something that graduate students in the humanities and social sciences really care about. But if you really start talking to graduate students in the sciences, they see that there are issues that can affect their graduate career. … There is a lot of room for improvement across the university.”

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