Ready to Organize

Grad students look to capitalize on NLRB ruling

Rachel Cassavanta Sep 19, 2016

Graduate students at private universities have the right to unionize, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in a 3-1 decision in August, responding to a petition brought by students at Columbia University and the United Auto Workers (UAW). The ruling is a major victory in a 15-year fight by Columbia grad students and their counterparts at other private universities to form collective bargaining units against steep resistance from officials at their schools.

“I’m elated,” said Joscelyn Jurich, a fifth-year grad student organizer who is seeking a doctorate in communication through Columbia’s School of Journalism. “But there’s a long road to come ahead.”

Life’s not all tea and crumpets in the Ivy League, Jurich explained. 

Graduate student workers usually receive a modest yearly stipend to teach or serve as research assistants as they work for their diplomas. At Columbia it typically ranges from about $22,000 to $28,000. But often students wind up putting in as much as three times more hours per week than are required at the behest of their professors, who are not only their academic mentors but also their managers.

“It can be tricky for students to negotiate [the workload],” said Jurich.  “One’s supervisor in work is also one’s supervisor intellectually.” 

The hours grad students put in working for universities like Columbia come in addition to conducting their own writing and research in pursuit of their degrees, all while juggling jobs off-campus in order to get by. And although for many grad school workers it takes six and sometimes up to eight or nine years to complete their doctorates, their stipends disappear long before they receive their diplomas. It varies per school, but in Jurich’s program graduate student funding dries up after three years — a particularly hard blow for international students whose visas do not permit them to work anywhere but on campus where jobs are hard to come by.  

It’s these issues around hours and compensation, not to mention health insurance and childcare that have led graduate students to seek out union representation. University administrations have fought them every step of the way and there is no sign the pressure will be letting up anytime soon as student workers seek certification through the NLRB. 

Grad students at Columbia, Brown, Tufts and the University of Pennsylvania first launched union drives back 2001 after an NLRB ruling the previous year forced New York University (NYU) to recognize grad student representation through the UAW. But in 2004, new members on the relations board overturned its previous decision. NYU refused to recognize the union again until 2013 and only after consistent, bottom-up pressure from its grad student workforce.

August’s ruling reaffirms students’ right to unionize, recognizing them not solely as students — as Columbia and other universities that filed briefs in the case argued — but also as university employees, entitled to basic labor protections.  

In response the ruling, several universities — Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, the University of Chicago — have set-up web pages purporting to be informational, but which students have decried as fear-mongering. 

“Stipend levels, remuneration, and benefits may change; there is no guarantee that they will increase,” Columbia cautions students. And, “If the union calls a strike, union members could be fined by the union if found to be not in compliance with the strike action. Academic activities regarded as work by the union contract such as teaching and research would be suspended for the duration of the strike, which might delay a student’s time-to-degree or research agenda.”

Jurich said there is wide support on campus, from students and professors, for a grad worker union and that organizers have begun educating new arrivals to the university about the union drive. 

“We want to have a contract with the university, so that we understand the terms of our labor,” said Jurich. “And we want that labor to have more equity across the university than it does at this moment. Sure, this is about private universities but a union is something people need in all workplaces.” 

No date has been set for a unionization vote at Columbia or elsewhere yet, but legal analysts expect universities to appeal should they be dissatisfied with the results.

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