Universities deny graduate students’ unionization efforts

Private colleges and universities across the nation are beginning to push back in droves against graduate students’ hopes for collective bargaining.

Columbia University sent a letter last Tuesday saying it would appeal to a federal court rather than engage in bargaining, following the trend that Yale, Boston College, and others began. Georgetown University formally declined to even acknowledge the creation of a graduate student union in early December.

Related: Georgetown graduate students to file with National Labor Relations Board in unionization fight

Legal policy experts anticipate that the federal courts could take months, if not years, to resolve the stalemate. By that time, the pro-business Trump appointee John Ring, currently awaiting Senate confirmation, will likely join the National Labor Relations Board. Currently balanced at 4-4 between Trump and Obama appointees, Ring’s appointment will make the NLRB lean pro-management in future decisions.

The NLRB granted graduate students the ability to unionize in 2016 to seek improved benefits and increased pay. The board’s decision acknowledged that graduate students are employees, insofar as the university pays them a salary, and therefore deserve the right to negotiate for their benefits.

University administrators, however, feel differently. Their unwillingness to bargain with graduate students stems from the fact that they view them primarily as students, not employees. Treating these students as employees could potentially impinge upon the mentoring relationship between graduate students and their supervising professors.

As Columbia University, Provost John Coatsworth said in an email Tuesday, “We remain convinced that the relationship of graduate students to the faculty that instruct them must not be reduced to ordinary terms of employment.”

University of Chicago Executive Vice Provost David Nirenberg followed a similar line of reasoning, writing, “Our concern here is simply about the potential effects of unionization on our ability to provide our students with the individualized support they need to flourish in their research and teaching.”

Neither Nirenberg nor Coatsworth elaborated on what the purported negative “potential effects” would be.

Students hoped that the 2016 ruling would bring them increased pay and healthcare benefits, as many cite debt and high costs of living near their schools as challenges. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, graduate students’ mean annual pay was $35,810 in 2016.

To date, only one private institution — New York University — has actually established a bargaining agreement with its graduate students. American, Tufts, and Brandeis universities have also agreed to negotiate, but have not established a signed contract.

Kate Hardiman is pursuing a master’s in education from Notre Dame University and teaches English and religion at a high school in Chicago.

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