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Graduate Students At Private Universities Demanded Their Labor Rights And Won

They can now be recognized as employees.

Ian Bradley-Perrin, left, and fellow graduate student Olga Brudastova, pose for a photo on the campus of Columbia University in New York. CREDIT: AP/KAREN MATTHEWS
Ian Bradley-Perrin, left, and fellow graduate student Olga Brudastova, pose for a photo on the campus of Columbia University in New York. CREDIT: AP/KAREN MATTHEWS

After more than a decade of fighting for improved workplace conditions, graduate students secured a major win this week.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students at private universities count as employees, allowing those students to form unions that private universities have no choice but to recognize. State laws already allow graduate students at many public universities to organize.

This decision overturns a 2004 ruling in favor of Brown University. Private universities have argued that graduate students can only be either students or employees of the university, but NLRB decided they can be both.

In its decision, the board wrote, “The board has the statutory authority to treat student assistants as statutory employees, where they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated. Statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the [National Labor Relations] Act does not reach.”

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Although graduate students receive things like stipends and scholarships, they often have very few benefits, don’t know when they can expect payment, and live in very expensive housing markets. Graduate students also argue that, through teaching classes and conducting research that brings money into the school and fulfills the school’s mission, they should have the same rights as any other workers.

“I am a worker doing the sort of work that makes Columbia University great.”

Graduate students who work as research assistants and teaching assistants at the New School and Columbia University, two of whom are pictured above, petitioned to join the United Automobile Workers. UAW has worked for a long time to secure labor rights for graduate students at schools such as New York University, the University of Washington, California State University, and Harvard University, to name a few.

“What is so thrilling about this is decision is that even in the first paragraph it obliterates the reasoning that suggests there is any incompatibility with being a student and being a worker,” Paul Katz, a graduate student who is three years into a history Ph.D. program at Columbia University, told reporters. “For my part, when I’m doing research, I’m a student. But when I’m in front of a room teaching students about let’s say the history of ancient Greece, a topic totally removed from my own research, when I’m grading their papers, and giving them advice, I am a worker doing the sort of work that makes Columbia University great.”

Olga Brudastova, a research assistant in Columbia University’s Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, said that forming a union would help ensure graduate students receive payments on time, since some students have waited anywhere from two months to a semester for payment. She added that, aside from addressing concerns such as health care and housing, union backing would also help in instances when grad students experience sexual harassment.

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Adjuncts Argue Low Pay Represents Changing Priorities At Universities – ThinkProgress“Why are aren’t you out in the streets? Why aren’t you following the same tactics that were used in the labor movement…thinkprogress.orgIn a statement to The New York Times, the media relations director for Columbia University, Caroline A. Adelman, said the school disagrees with the outcome of the ruling “because we believe the academic relationship students have with faculty members and departments as part of their studies is not the same as between employer and employee.”

But students, as well as a professor, argued that their status as students would not clash with their participation in a union. Eric Foner, a history professor at Columbia University, said he reached out to faculty in various public universities where graduate students had formed unions and found that none of the faculty members he spoke to thought the students’ labor rights clashed with their academic work.

“I don’t expect unions to get involved in the reading lists for orals examinations.”

“Some people said that unions did a lot do a lot for workers, some said they hadn’t achieved good contracts at their place, but these are mostly red herrings. Anyone with common sense can figure out pretty quickly what these are legitimate grounds for conditions for labor and what are academic issues,” Foner said. “I don’t expect unions to get involved in the reading lists for orals examinations or what is going to be on some students’ doctoral defense or what grade a student is going to get in a class.”

This development for graduate students comes at a time when adjunct professors are also fighting to form unions and negotiate contracts for better working conditions. They argue that they have little notice before they are hired to teach a course, don’t receive pay parity with tenured professors, and don’t receive the benefits or opportunities other faculty members do. Adjuncts have been working with the Fight for $15 Campaign (which as the name suggests, advocates for a $15 minimum wage) alongside the fast food workers who first brought attention to the cause.

The Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Teachers have been at the forefront of adjunct professor rights in the way UAW has backed many graduate students. Adjuncts and graduate students have often partnered with each other to bring attention to issues of poor working conditions at universities.