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Anti-Union University Administrations Fight Surge In Graduate Student Worker Organizing

Since the National Labor Relations Board ruled in August 2016 that graduate student workers at private universities have the right to unionize, graduate student unions in the United States have surged. Yet, currently, nearly all of these unions face resistance and union-busting efforts from their university administrations.

At Boston College, graduate student workers voted to unionize in September 2017. The university has refused to recognize the union despite the vote.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) withdrew their petition with the National Labor Relations Board as an affiliate to the graduate student workers union at Boston College in anticipation of an unfavorable ruling against them by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The NLRB is now dominated by appointees from President Donald Trump’s administration, who are hostile toward union efforts and protections.

Sixteen students were targeted with academic disciplinary proceedings for handing out flyers outside a fundraising concert at Boston College in September 2018.

“I wound up receiving an administrative warning which is the highest level of discipline the university gives out before they put you on academic probation,” Sam Levinson, a graduate worker in the Chemistry Department at Boston College, recalled. “It was a really stressful distraction from what I want to get done, which is my work. The reason we want to have a union contract is to alleviate some stress and get our work done.”

“Four universities, Harvard, Georgetown, Brown, and Columbia, have all agreed to bargain with graduate workers, and completely outside the NLRB process for recognition with Georgetown and Brown,” said Ben Cain, an organizer with UAW. “It’s another way that Boston College is out of line with the direction that universities are going.”

In December 2018, Massachusetts State Senator Jamie Eldridge and several community labor and faith leaders had the door shut in their face while attempting to deliver a petition signed by 3,000 community members and 700 graduate student workers asking Boston College to bargain with the union.

A Boston College spokesperson said in an email, “Boston College is opposed to graduate student unionization on the grounds that it undermines the longstanding collegial mentoring relationship between student and faculty that is a cornerstone of the academic experience.”

Labor conditions in higher education have increasingly shifted toward using graduate student employees and contingent faculty over tenured and tenure-track faculty because they provide a cheaper labor source for universities.

The average graduate teaching assistant makes less than one-third the salary of the average professor, according to a 2018 study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute.

Part-time faculty in the U.S. have increased from 30 percent in 1975 to more than 50 percent of all faculty appointments, according to the American Association of University Professors. A 2015 report by the UC Berkeley Labor Center found 25 percent of part-time college faculty in the United States rely on at least one public assistance program.

“The upsurge in graduate student organizing is primarily a reflection of the changing conditions in higher education,” said Gordon Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon and former senior labor policy advisor for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor. “While in graduate school, PhD students are the cheap labor force that enables universities to decimate the ranks of tenure-track faculty, thus ruining the career prospects of PhD students once they earn their degrees.”

“This both has made economic conditions more important while in grad school, and has made the grad student union movement into a vehicle for expression of the anxiety, resentment, and pushback against this restructuring of higher education,” Lafer added.

At Harvard University, graduate student workers managed to successfully bring school administrators to the bargaining table in October 2018 after voting to form a union in April of that year

The NLRB recommended a new election after ruling that Harvard denied a proper union election in November 2016. Graduate student workers claim the school is still working to undermine the union, as they have throughout the process of forming a union.

“Before the election, we saw more active tactics. At this stage, it’s a little bit darker by denying us the democratic representation we want in these very long sessions, blocking requests for more bargaining time, and still not giving us lists of our members, though we are legally entitled to it,” said Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a graduate worker at Harvard Law School and union bargaining committee member. “They are moving as slowly as possible.”

“We’ve reached only a few tentative agreements. They are basically saying they won’t negotiate on things they know to be our core issues,” Sandalow-Ash asserted.

Sandalow-Ash noted the union remains focused on organizing and mobilizing graduate student workers to beat back Harvard’s anti-union tactics. They plan to secure a contract that will make Harvard a better place for graduate student workers to live and work by ensuring all graduate student workers have adequate healthcare and dental coverage.

Ege Yumusak, a graduate worker in the philosophy department at Harvard and union bargaining committee member, added, “They are trying to isolate us from other unions, indicating they don’t see us as workers. We see this at every step. Even though other campus unions have won incredible protections, we’re always pushed aside.”

A Harvard University spokesperson said in an email, “From the outset of these negotiations, the university has welcomed the opportunity to engage with HGSU-UAW. Our commitment is clear: we will work in good faith to reach an agreement that is good for student workers, all students and our entire university community.”

Graduate student workers at Columbia University recently began bargaining with the school after a second strike was planned in December 2018. Workers first went on strike in April 2018 after the school refused to bargain with the union for more than a year after graduate student workers voted to unionize.

Before the strike, the university openly expressed concerns with unionization efforts and the possibility of a strike. “Students may want to consider how their laboratory research and academic progress will be affected by a strike,” suggested a ‘fact check’ leaflet on unions distributed by Columbia University’s Office of the Provost before the April strike.

“Columbia, despite all the outwardly seeming liberal-leaning, want[s] to seem like the good guys criticizing Trump, but that does not correspond with how they treat their employees,” said Trevor Hull, a graduate student worker in the chemistry department at Columbia University.

“We had to fight very hard to win our union and fight legal battles to get to the point where they would bargain with us, and it wound up being our strike that tipped the balance.”

The union is fighting for improvement in healthcare offered to graduate student workers, the establishment of a grievance procedure for sexual harassment, and a third-party arbitrator to resolve labor disputes on campus.

“Arriving at a first collective bargaining agreement is complicated and time-consuming, but the University’s bargaining committees are prepared to do the work necessary to accomplish that as expeditiously as possible given the number of people involved and the scheduling issues that result,” claimed a Columbia University spokesperson.

The University of Pittsburgh has retained the law firm Ballard Spahr, which specializes in union avoidance, as their graduate student workers wait on the NLRB to schedule a union election date. The process of filing for a union election has dragged on since December 2017.

“Every step of the way they find a way to delay the process further and so a big part of their anti-union strategy has been to delay,” said Jeff Cech, an organizing coordinator with United Steelworkers, the affiliate working to represent graduate student workers at the University of Pittsburgh.

Cech mentioned this tactic is employed by administrators because “organizing graduate student employees are on a five to six-year cycle. So we have a high turnover rate every academic year.”

A University of Pittsburgh spokesperson stated, “On March 7, we received the decision of the hearing examiner appointed by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) directing an election for certain graduate students. We are evaluating our options going forward and will continue to follow the PLRB process.”

The union election at the University of Pittsburgh is scheduled for the week of April 15.

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a Freelance Journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. His writing has appeared in The Intercept, The Hill, The Guardian, Denver Post, Truth-Out, and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @MSainat1