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Graduate Students, College Athletes, And The Fight For Labor Rights

Graduate students at some of America’s prestigious private universities are taking the case that they should be able to organize and collectively bargain to the National Labor Relations Board, which has decided previously that as students they did not have the right to organize and collectively bargain. The NLRB has decided to revisit that case after a regional director deemed that grad students who also work and earn wages from their schools could be dual-purpose subjects, acting at once both as students and as employees.

The briefs filed by both sides lay out a wide array of arguments for why the students should or shouldn’t be able to organize, but based on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s review of the briefs, it would seem the argument boils down to the fact that if graduate students could bargain, the current system used by private colleges and universities would be unsustainable:

“It is no exaggeration to state that the future of American private graduate education is at stake in these cases,” argued a brief submitted by Brown University, which faces the prospect of the board reversing a 2004 decision that prohibited the unionization of its graduate-student assistants.

This seems like a spurious argument, if only because graduate students at public universities are allowed to bargain collectively and those graduate schools are still alive and well. Even if it would change the terms of the private graduate education system, though, the point is relevant only if one believes that the assistants’ rights as employees aren’t more important than maintaining the status quo. And the interesting thing here is how closely this fight parallels the debate about organizing and paying college athletes.

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As Bylaw Blog’s John Infante tweeted yesterday, “just replace ‘graduate student’ with ‘athlete,’” and the meat of the story doesn’t change. College athletes are also trying to spark an organization movement, and the arguments in opposition are similar if not the same. Brown is using the same basic argument for not allowing bargaining among its graduate students as the NCAA uses to justify not paying its athletes: that doing so would undermine the system and make it unsustainable. The NLRB’s previous decision on grad students is similar to earlier legal decisions that deemed college athletes “student-athletes” and not “employees,” in that it denies the obvious economic benefits schools receive from them.

The point, as civil rights activist and author Taylor Branch explained to me before, remains the same: whether we’re talking about graduate students or college athletes, rights have to come first. If private universities or the NCAA can’t both give players and students their rights while also functioning in a sustainable manner, that isn’t a justification for maintaining the current system. It’s a justification for creating a new one.