A gate at Brown University

The recent NLRB ruling overturns a previous decision made in a 2004 case involving Brown University.

Credit: gregobagel/iStockphoto

The implications of graduate student unionization

Student assistants at private universities have the right to organize unions, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled last week. The decision in a case against Columbia University by a student group wishing to affiliate with a national labor union overturns the board’s 2004 ruling in the Brown University case. In that case, it was decided that students paid to teach class sections, work on research projects, or grade papers are predominantly students and thus ineligible under the National Labor Relations Act to establish unions. How exactly this new decision will affect life on campus remains to be seen, and opinions about the likely effects vary. But hints can be gleaned from some of the more than 60 public universities—including research-intensive institutions such as the University of California and the University of Wisconsin—where student unionization is permitted by state law.

Opponents have long argued that student unionization would change the bond between students and professors from cooperative to adversarial, damaging the relationships at the core of graduate education. In the sole dissenting opinion in the NLRB decision, board member Philip Miscimarra called the labor-management model inappropriate to education. The “successful completion of degree requirements results from the combined commitment of faculty, administrators, and the students’ own academic efforts,” he writes. This crucial and, for the student, “life-changing” experience should not “be governed by bargaining leverage, the potential resort to economic weapons, [or] the threat or infliction of economic injury” inherent in collective bargaining. An amicus brief supporting Columbia’s position submitted by the seven other Ivy League institutions, Stanford University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology agrees. “[T]he services performed by graduate student assistants are embedded in the very fabric of their educational experience,” the brief states.

Research data on the question, though sparse, do not appear to support those fears, however. In a 2013 study, researchers surveyed 3219 students in Ph.D. programs in psychology, computer science, business, history, and English at eight public research-intensive universities, four with unionized graduate assistants and four without. The students at the unionized institutions, the authors write, on average gave their advisers higher ratings for “accepting them as competent professionals, serving as a role model to them, being someone they wanted to become like, and being effective in his or her role” than did their counterparts on nonunion campuses. They were also “more likely than nonunionized students to report respect for differing opinions in their university” and had “higher stipends, and greater pay fairness and adequacy.”

The authors of the study suggest that “either directly or through creating pressures that encourage management to rationalize practices, [unions could] encourage stronger mentoring by faculty advisors.” It’s also possible, they note, that “unions strengthen the relationship between students and faculty advisors by pushing potential employment-related conflicts up to the university bureaucracy.”

A 2000 study examining the professorial side of the relationship comes to similar conclusions. The survey of 1000 randomly selected faculty members at unionized universities found that “[f]aculty do not have a negative attitude toward graduate student collective bargaining,” the paper states. “[F]aculty feel graduate assistants are employees of the university, support the right of graduate students to bargain collectively, and believe collective bargaining is appropriate for graduate students. … [E]ven more important, … based on their experiences, collective bargaining does not inhibit their ability to advise, instruct, or mentor their graduate students.” Faculty members did express reservations about some aspects of collective bargaining on campus, including some uncertainty that the agreements produced “allow for the selection of the most academically qualified graduate students” or “provide a good way of channeling and resolving complaints.” Overall, however, the study’s findings “refute claims by university administrators that collective bargaining inhibits the educational relationship between faculty and graduate students.”

Although much is still unknown about the ultimate effects from the ruling, one is highly probable: further litigation. “It is possible that Columbia or another university subject to organizing may, if it loses an [organizing] election, engage in a technical refusal to bargain in order to present the Board’s decision to a Court of Appeals for review,” notes an article on the website of the Boston law firm Fisher Phillips, whose managing partner submitted the amicus brief in the Columbia case and successfully represented Brown University in 2004. Indeed, the article predicts, “an appeal of the decision is highly likely.”

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