On Friday (September 20), the National Labor Relations Board proposed a rule stating that graduate students at private universities are not employees and cannot form unions. The proposal follows years of back-and-forth decisions on the status of graduate students’ ability to unionize. It is unclear how the new rule would affect ongoing unionization efforts; Inside Higher Ed reports that current contracts would not be affected by the rule until they expire.
In 2000, the board ruled that students at New York University could unionize, but it overturned this decision in a 2004 Brown University case. This was then reversed in 2016, when it determined that graduate and undergraduate students at Columbia University were considered employees and had the right to unionize, reports Science.
After the 2016 Columbia decision, students at 12 other universities voted in favor of forming unions, with varying degrees of success. For example, although graduate students at the University of Chicago voted to form a union in 2017, the university has refused to recognize it. “Graduate students are students, first and foremost,” said provost Daniel Diermeier in an email sent to the campus community in June, according to Science. Columbia University did not begin contract negotiations until graduate students went on a weeklong strike in 2018, and negotiations are still ongoing.
National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) members are appointed by the current presidential administration, so the board’s views on unions have differed with each administration, flip-flopping on whether teaching and research done by students at private universities is considered part of their education or if it is work that makes them employees.
Some see the proposed rule as overreach. “What’s troubling about this is this is Congress’s job,” William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at City University of New York’s Hunter College, tells Inside Higher Ed. “This is rulemaking about excluding a class of employees from the National Labor Relations Act.”
The NLRB is allowing public comments on the rule electronically or by mail until November 22.
Emily Makowski is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.