Grad students given right to unionize

Punctuating a string of Obama-era moves to shore up labor rights and expand protections for workers, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities have a federally backed right to unionize.

The case arose from a petition filed by a group of graduate students at Columbia University in New York, who are seeking to win recognition for a union that will allow them a say over such issues as the quality of their health insurance and the timeliness of their stipend payments.

Echoing longstanding complaints from blue-collar workers that they have become replaceable cogs in a globalized economic machine, the effort reflects a growing view among more highly educated employees that they too are at the mercy of faceless organizations and are not being treated like professionals and aspiring professionals whose opinions are worthy of respect.

“What we’re fundamentally concerned about isn’t really money,” said Paul R. Katz, one of the Columbia graduate students involved in the organizing efforts. “It’s a question of power and democracy in a space in the academy that’s increasingly corporatized, hierarchical. That’s what we’re most concerned about.”

Columbia and other universities that weighed in with the board before the ruling argued that collective bargaining would lead to a more adversarial relationship between students and the university that would undermine its educational purpose.

The decision reverses a 2004 ruling by the board involving graduate student assistants at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The ruling held the assistants could not be considered employees because they “are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.”

The current board disagreed, arguing that Columbia students could be deemed employees if they perform and are compensated for work that the university oversees, even if their relationship was substantially broader.

The three Democratic members of the board made up the majority; the lone Republican member dissented. A fifth spot on the board has been vacant since last year.

Highly educated workers in other fields have also chafed at a growing sense of their own powerlessness. Recent law school graduates have lamented their rising debt and declining prospects for landing a law firm job. Many medical interns and residents have unionized in recent years, while a group of doctors at a medical center in Oregon formed a union of hospitalists in 2014.

Heather Appel, the communications director for the Committee of Interns and Residents, which is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union and represents some 14,000 residents, interns and fellows nationwide, attributed the activity in part to the doctors’ lost sense of autonomy and to growing job insecurity amid a trend of hospital mergers.

At the same time, the Obama administration and its appointees have taken numerous steps to protect workers and bolster their rights in recent years, from lifting the minimum wage for workers employed by federal contractors to new rules that lower workers’ exposure to dangerous silica dust.

Some of these efforts have touched professionals as well, such as a requirement that financial advisers who handle workers’ retirement accounts must act in their best interests, and expansion of the number of employees who are automatically eligible for time-and-a-half overtime pay, which affected many postdoctoral researchers.

Many universities opposed the overtime rule, arguing, as with unionization, that it would change their relationship with their students and young scholars.

Despite the overall trend, the administration and its appointees have not been categorically sympathetic to labor. Last year, the labor board dismissed a petition by football players at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who had argued that they were employees and sought to unionize.

Graduate students at a number of public universities already have the right to organize under state laws.

Caroline A. Adelman, a spokeswoman for Columbia, said that “Columbia — along with many of our peer institutions — disagrees with this outcome 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.”

Money does not appear to be a central issue between the students and the Columbia administration, which has already raised stipends by several percent per year of late.

As a sign of the changing nature of the control that universities exert over instructors, some of the Columbia students have pointed to the rise over the past several decades of adjunct faculty members — who typically teach for less pay, and have far less job security, than tenure-track faculty members.

Over the past five decades, the proportion of tenured and tenure-track faculty at postsecondary institutions declined from about three-quarters to about one-third, according to some estimates.

Beyond concerns that unionization by graduate students will be highly disruptive, the universities also argued that the reach of the unions would extend beyond the purely economic aspect of the relationship between the student assistants and the university. They worry that unionization might begin to intrude on academic matters, such as class size and length, even the format of classes and exams.

Joseph Ambash, a lawyer who represented Brown University in its 2004 case and wrote a brief in the current case on behalf of several Ivy League universities, cited concerns about what he called a slippery slope.

“I don’t think a union is going to negotiate things such as grades,” he said. “However, when you talk about the term ‘workload,’ that goes to how many hours a week should a research assistant devote to working in the lab on research that results in a Ph.D., how many hours they devote to grading exams, who gets to be selected to be either a teaching assistant or research assistant.”

All of those examples have significant academic implications and should be controlled entirely by the university, he said.

In rejecting such arguments, the board cited research that examined the impact of graduate student unions in public universities and generally concluded that the unions either had no effect on academic freedom and the relationship between students and faculty, or actually brought improvement.

“We don’t observe bad effects on academic freedom, bad effects on faculty-student relationships,” said Paula B. Voos, an professor at Rutgers University who was a co-author of one of the studies cited.

Voos’ study, which compared students at four public universities that had graduate student labor unions with four that did not, found that on balance students at the unionized universities reported having better personal relationships and “professional support relationships” with their main faculty advisers.

The majority at the labor board, an independent agency whose members are appointed by the president, expressed confidence that universities and their students could draw a proper line between largely academic issues and issues of pay and working conditions.

Citing the example of New York University, which voluntarily recognized its graduate student union in 2013, it said the university’s labor agreements “incorporate a ‘management and academic rights’ clause, which would tend to allay fears that collective bargaining will attempt to dictate academic matters.”