NLRB decision draws near on whether graduate students at private universities can unionize

Julia Jacobs, Editor in Chief

The National Labor Relations Board is expected to vote soon on whether to clear the way for graduate students at private institutions such as Northwestern to collectively bargain as university employees.

Northwestern graduate students — many of who work as teaching assistants, research assistants or the principal instructor in a class — exist in an ambiguous state between student and worker, said Matilda Stubbs, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology at NU. Stubbs, now in her eighth year at The Graduate School, said she has been working since her first year to gain graduate students recognition as employees. Without a strong unifying force across NU’s graduate campuses, attempts thus far have been “futile,” she said.

But the upcoming ruling involving students from Columbia University and The New School could reverse a 2004 decision by the NLRB establishing that graduate students at Brown University do not qualify as employees because of their “primarily educational” relationship with the school.

“What this decision does is, at the very least, it first and foremost recognizes our labor and the work that we contribute to campus,” Stubbs said.

The door for NU graduate students to unionize may open just as non-tenure eligible faculty are seeking to collectively bargain with the University. Although faculty voted in July on whether to organize, a number of contested ballots has led the NLRB’s Chicago branch to schedule a hearing to determine the official outcome of the election.

Stubbs said this recent development has spurred the Service Employees International Union, which has worked with NU’s non-tenure eligible faculty in their unionization effort, to help organize graduate students as well.

At NU, graduate student assistants receive a monthly stipend and are expected to work 15 to 20 hours a week, according to TGS policy. In May 2015, administrators announced stipend increases for MFA and Ph.D. students at TGS to $29,000 from $22,992 per year. University spokesman Al Cubbage wrote in an email to The Daily that the stipends were increased by $880 for this school year.

In regards to the University’s position on whether graduate students should be considered employees, Cubbage said the University provides guaranteed funding to graduate students for five years, a “high-availability” of support for sixth-year students in MFA and Ph.D. programs at TGS and “excellent” health care coverage.

Stubbs no longer qualifies for a stipend as an eighth-year graduate student. But she said graduate students are required to pay employment taxes on all wages they receive from Northwestern. Stubbs said she was paid $2,000 to teach a freshman seminar during Spring Quarter.

“It’s really peculiar to me that we would be paying taxes and we’re taxed at the same rate that any normal employee would be taxed at and yet somehow we’re not employees,” Stubbs said.

Because Stubbs was not considered a Northwestern employee when she gave birth to her son four years ago, she said she did not qualify for any time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Instead, Stubbs said she doubled up on work while she was pregnant before she had her son to ensure she could keep up with being a parent and a graduate student at the same time. (The University now has a policy under which women graduate students receive six weeks of paid leave if they serve as student assistants, fellows and/or receive a tuition scholarship at the time of childbirth.)

Many states, including Illinois, allow graduate students to collectively bargain for benefits such as time off after childbirth at public-sector colleges and universities. There are about 33 graduate employee unions in the United States, according to the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions’ website, and graduate students at some private universities have organized without official recognition. University of Chicago graduate students formed a group in 2007 that has negotiated with the administration for improvements to healthcare benefits and parental leave policies, as well as increased pay, among others.

In an amicus brief signed on behalf of SEIU and others, the group argued that a new “corporate model” at universities has resulted in an economic relationship between students assistants and their institutions rather than an educational one.

Marshall Babson, a labor relations lawyer who was on the NLRB in the 1980s, said although he supports collective bargaining in general, he has doubts as to whether the “industrial model” fits academic environments.

Babson wrote an amicus brief on behalf of several higher education associations arguing that graduate students’ chief goal is to obtain a degree, not to work, and collective bargaining could “intrude” on relationships between universities, professors and graduate students.

“There’s something that about collective bargaining that I think would detract from the ability of teacher and student to work together to attain their mutual goal,” Babson said. “When it comes down to the teaching model itself, it can strain at the relationship in ways that I think are not healthy.”

In 2000, four years before the NLRB’s Brown University decision, the five-member board ruled that graduate students at New York University could be considered employees and thus had collective bargaining rights. This administrative back-and-forth can be attributed to the political leaning of the board at the time, Babson said.

Because the president appoints the majority of board members, different determinations on whether graduate students should be able to unionize can depend on who’s in the White House.

“Politics are alive and well at the NLRB,” said Babson, who served as a Democratic member of the board in the Reagan administration.

Before the NYU decision, the board had held for about 25 years that graduate students were not university employees. That legacy may change again before the end of the month, as the NLRB reconsiders whether to remove the already blurry line between being a graduate student and a university employee.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @juliarebeccaj