Proposal threatens graduate unionization

October 11, 2019

Brandeis graduate students may no longer have the ability to unionize with the proposal of a new ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—which comes a year after Brandeis graduates ratified their first labor contract in Sept. 2018. The proposal hopes to establish a regulation on considering students as employees at private colleges or universities, according to the proposal on the Federal Register’s website. 

Universities may choose to voluntarily negotiate labor contracts with their graduate students even if the NLRB proposal passes, according to an article by Chemical & Engineering News (c&e News). However, the passing of the proposal means that graduate students do not have federal support to unionize.

Members of the workers union unanimously ratified the agreement and the administration “signed off” on the document on Sept. 20, wrote Peter Bala, an internal organizer with the larger organization that represents the Brandeis Graduate Union [Services Employees International Union] SEIU Local 509, in an email to The Brandeis Hoot. 

The contract will stay in effect until June 30, 2021, wrote Bala to The Hoot. “90 [days] prior to the expiration, either side (the Union or the University) can notify the other of the desire to renegotiate the contract and then negotiations will begin.” 

The new proposal by the NLRB, however, will give the university the opportunity to refuse renegotiations with the workers union in 2021. 

Bala hopes that the “University will respect the views of the graduate workers that decided to form a union and collectively bargain a contract with the University, regardless of what any accepted rule changes states.” 

Students who perform services for the university for pay, which include teaching or research, are not considered employees within the meaning of Section 2(3) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). 

Employees, defined under section 2(3) of the NLRA, are not limited to the employees of a particular employer and does not explicitly include or exclude students who perform services at a private university. 

Any students who perform services at a private university or college related to their studies are primarily students, states the study, and have a “predominantly educational, not economic, relationship with their university, and therefore not statutory employees.”

The NLRB submitted the proposal on Sept. 23, but must wait 60 days before a final vote can be made for public comment, according to an article by the Wall Street Journal. 

There are five members of the NLRB which are appointed by the White House, according to the Wall Street Journal article. There is currently one vacancy, and the rule passed 3:1. The three supporters were elected by Republican President Donald Trump and the sole opposee was elected by the previous Democrat President Barack Obama. 

The NLRB has changed their approach to graduate student unions three times since 2000, according to the proposal. The most recent decision in 2016 “extended the right to unionize to teaching assistants in private colleges, based on a unionization drive at Columbia University,” according to c&e News. 

Since 2015, 15 union elections have been held at private universities in the US and teaching and research assistants at 12 schools have chosen to unionize, writes the c&e News article. Brandeis is among one of five private institutions in the US where graduate unions have successfully negotiated contracts with their respective universities, and four are currently negotiating.

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