Proposed federal rules threaten graduate student unionization

New policy by the National Labor Relations Board would no longer require universities to recognize graduate student unions

Proposed new rules by the National Labor Relations Board would effectively revoke the right of graduate students at private universities to unionize. While graduate students at MIT are not unionized, the proposed ruling would affect unionization efforts of graduate students across the country.

The proposal considers the relationships between graduate students and universities “primarily educational in nature,” rather than economic. It would allow universities to voluntarily recognize graduate student unions, but does not guarantee students the right to unionize.

While there have been initiatives for MIT graduate students to unionize — a survey conducted in January 2019 found that over 60 percent of graduate students support unionization — the official policy platform of the MIT Graduate Student Council does not include a stance on graduate student unionization. In an email to The Tech, GSC External Affairs Board Chair Jack Reid G wrote, “The Graduate Student Council is not currently involved with any unionization efforts here at MIT.”

However, the GSC is a member of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students. The official platform of the NAGPS states that the association “supports the rights of students to decide to organize, and supports the efforts of students to unionize at their individual universities.”

In an email to The Tech, GSC President Peter Su G wrote that, while the GSC does not have an official stance on unionization, “we recognize that graduate students have both an educative and an economic role within the university, and the GSC seeks to advocate for both aspects of graduate students' lives.”

According to the MIT Office of Graduate Education’s website, “the Institute believes that its relationship with its graduate teaching and research assistants is primarily an educational one and that unionization of graduate students could disrupt academic programs, mentoring and research.”

The OGE did not respond to a request for comment about the Institute’s potential response if, under the new rules, graduate students organized to unionize.

The current rules that give graduate students the right to unionize result from a 2016 decision made by the NLRB under the Obama administration, which ruled in favor of graduate students in a case brought by Columbia University.

The proposed new reversal is one in a series of conflicting rulings by the board — the right to unionize was preserved in 2000 by the Clinton administration’s NLRB in a case brought by New York University, but later reversed in 2004 by a ruling by the Bush administration’s NLRB in a case brought by Brown University.

During the Columbia case, MIT joined eight other universities in filing a brief with the NLRB that called for graduate students to not be recognized as employees.

Many universities have expressed resistance to recognizing graduate student unions. Graduate students at universities including Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Chicago previously submitted petitions to the NLRB seeking official certification, but withdrew them following new member appointments to the board in 2018.