[Marxism] Graduate Students Seek to Build on Momentum for Unions
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Tue May 13 06:44:02 MDT 2014
Chronicle of Higher Education May 12, 2014
Graduate Students Seek to Build on Momentum for Unions
By Vimal Patel
Graduate students seeking to form unions at private colleges have gained
new momentum from the recent success of their counterparts at New York
University, which agreed to let the students vote on forming a
Spurred by the outcome of the NYU unionization effort, which resulted in
a vote for a United Auto Workers affiliate on the campus, graduate
students at Yale University are the latest to press for the right to
form a bargaining unit. The Yale students say a union would ensure fair
treatment of a class of employees with growing workloads who play an
increasingly larger role in the university.
"There’s an understanding of the really powerful opening that the NYU
example provides," said Aaron Greenberg, a Yale Ph.D. student in
political science and chair of the Graduate Employees and Students
Organization, a group pushing for a graduate-student union at Yale.
The United Auto Workers affiliate at NYU is in the process of
negotiating a contract there.
"It’s the only example we have of a private university voluntarily and
collaboratively agreeing to a free and fair process that would allow
graduate teachers and researchers to decide on the union question," Mr.
Advocates of unions are also encouraged by the prospect that the
National Labor Relations Board may reconsider a key 2004 ruling
involving Brown University that for the past decade has limited the
ability of graduate students at private universities to organize.
The 2004 decision said graduate assistants are not employees because
their relationship with the university is primarily educational. But in
March, in a case involving a bid by Northwestern University football
players to unionize, a regional office of the NLRB said scholarship
athletes are employees, with the right to unionize. The College Athletes
Players Association, in their argument to the full labor board in April,
said the Brown case should be overruled. Experts say it appears likely
that the labor board would eventually revisit that ruling.
At Yale, meanwhile, graduate students marched in the rain in April to
deliver a petition that organizers say had 1,000 signatures—the same
number that NYU students delivered to their administration last year—to
Yale’s president, Peter Salovey. The students cited the NYU example and
asked Yale to "develop a fair process for graduate employees to decide
on union representation."
Mr. Greenberg expressed optimism about their efforts. Given the number
of students who signed the petition, he said, he expects administrators
to be willing to talk about a process, just as the NYU administration
did with students there. He has not yet heard directly from Yale
Tom Conroy, a Yale spokesman, said Mr. Salovey was unavailable for an
interview. "Yale University and the Graduate School have worked and will
continue to work productively with faculty and students, including the
Graduate Student Assembly, on the issues identified by the petition,"
said a statement provided by Mr. Conroy. "We are committed to the best
possible academic outcomes for our students."
As of last fall, Yale had more than 2,600 registered Ph.D. students.
Brian Dunican, a former chairman of the Graduate Student Assembly, said
he suspects that the largest portion of them are undecided on the
Stipends at Yale are competitive, ranging from $28,400 to $33,000 per
year, he said, and students are unsure how unionizing would improve
Graduate students at public colleges, too, have sought to improve their
working conditions through unionization. Public universities are subject
to state labor laws, so the NLRB ruling does not apply to their graduate
Graduate assistants at the University of Connecticut formed a union last
month, after the university’s Board of Trustees voted to remain neutral
in the effort. Graduate students at the University of Kansas are
exploring unionization out of concern that the university may cut
graduate students’ work hours in response to the Affordable Care Act.
The federal health-care law requires employers to provide coverage to
employees who work at least 30 hours a week.
At private universities, the NYU agreement is fueling new interest in
organizing, said Matt Canfield, who is in a Ph.D. program in
anthropology at NYU and helped organize the collective-bargaining effort
there. He said he had had conversations with graduate students at many
private universities in the months following the NYU union vote.
"We’ll soon see the resurgence of a broader movement," Mr. Canfield
said. "Graduate employees at private universities are trying to set the
groundwork for organizing."
But he and others acknowledged the challenges that remain for advocates
of unionization at private universities. The problems include opposition
from administrations and the difficulty of organizing students who are
very busy and who cycle out of the university every few years.
The deal between NYU and its graduate students came as the
administration was under pressure, giving unionization efforts more
momentum than they might enjoy elsewhere. The agreement was brokered as
a case was pending before the NLRB. The Graduate Student Organizing
Committee of the United Auto Workers was asking the labor board to
reverse its 2004 Brown decision. The NYU deal ended that case.
Unionization advocates had also gathered support from politicians across
New York City and the state following the university’s decision in 2005
to no longer bargain with the union, in light of the Brown decision. Mr.
Canfield said the committee increased its efforts in 2012 and had gained
the support of more than 250 elected officials, including many City
Council members and state legislators.
"From an organizing perspective, we were putting a lot of pressure on
the administration," he said.
William B. Gould IV, a former chairman of the NLRB, said NYU had
probably agreed to the deal because of "a combination of bad publicity
and reading the tea leaves" that the labor board would overturn the
He said graduate students at private colleges should be hopeful about
future unionization prospects because the board is interested in
reconsidering the Brown decision.
Mr. Canfield and others said they were not aware of unionization efforts
at private colleges that were as advanced as those at Yale, where
graduate students have been seeking to organize for a long time. Mr.
Greenberg’s group, GESO, was founded in 1991.
Elsewhere, graduate students at institutions including Cornell
University and the University of Chicago have stepped up conversations
about efforts to unionize.
Andrew Yale, a Ph.D. student in an English program at the University of
Chicago, said he had looked forward to an NLRB ruling in the NYU case
before the agreement was reached there. If the ruling had gone in favor
of the graduate students, it would have created a path to unionize at
other private colleges.
Mr. Yale is on the organizing committee of Graduate Students United, a
group that wants a union that would be recognized by Chicago. It has
advocated for issues like affordable on-campus child care and private
spaces for nursing mothers. He said group members are "contemplating our
options" following the NYU agreement.
That deal, he said, "provides a very promising model for advancing
graduate-employee unionization at private universities."
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