Labor agency to revisit a past decision that ruled graduate students were employees


Colin Boyle/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern University Graduate Workers during a May 2019 march. Graduate workers joined a national strike this week to protest police and racial violence.

Alan Perez, Editor in Chief

The National Labor Relations Board plans to revisit a 2016 ruling that classified many graduate students at private schools as employees, a move that could threaten unionization movements at universities across the country.

The NLRB will consider whether students at private colleges and universities who work as teaching and research assistants meet the criteria of “employees” under agency rules. A reversal of the ruling could potentially weaken graduate students’ attempts to gain recognition of informal unions, including at Northwestern.

Employee classification gives workers the right to unionize and collectively bargain. Recently, graduate students have been pushing for guaranteed sixth-year funding for doctoral programs, a demand they say would be better addressed through bargaining than protest.

The news comes at a time when graduate students in the Chicago area have increased their unionization efforts. Just last month, seven students were arrested at Loyola University during a sit-in protest after administrators refused to negotiate with the union.

Northwestern University Graduate Workers, the graduate student union unrecognized by the University, has avoided seeking to gain formal status from the NLRB amid worries that Trump appointees would use the opportunity to reverse the 2016 ruling. Instead, it is seeking voluntary recognition from Northwestern, an uphill battle for an institution that fundamentally opposes the employee classification.

“NUGW will continue to fight for the rights of all graduate workers, no matter what policy is handed down,” Andrew Hull, a spokesman for the union, said in a statement. “The NLRB and its rules change; the fact that we are workers who have the right to organize and bargain collectively for the sake of our livelihoods and our families does not.”

A new ruling opposed to the employee classification would likely not change NUGW’s strategy, but could put Northwestern on stronger footing.

The agency has a history of reversing its view of students, often changing course under presidents of different political parties. In 2016, the NLRB under President Obama overturned an earlier decision by the Bush NLRB that said graduate students weren’t employees under the law.

But now, the NLRB could change the ruling on its own. The agency, which did not respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon, said in a notice earlier this week that it would examine the issue in September. The process would follow federal rulemaking guidelines, which includes a public comment period.

“Speaking for myself as a worker and activist here, with Trump-appointed NLRB members I am indeed concerned about what regressive, pro-boss, anti-worker rules will be promulgated,” Hull said, adding that he did not want to make predictions on the outcome.

Graduate students say a union is necessary because of the lack of guaranteed conditions and the possibility of policy changes without their input.

Still, some teaching and research assistants could be guaranteed employee rights under state law. A bill making its way through the Illinois Senate would classify graduate and research assistants at public schools as employees, giving them the same labor rights as other educational employees. A similar bill was vetoed last year by former Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, though it would have a better change under Gov. JB Pritzker, a Democrat. The bill would not impact students at private schools like Northwestern.

Northwestern has opposed unionization of graduate students, saying it would alter the relationship between faculty and doctoral candidates, whom they view as students first.

“Northwestern believes that unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address concerns raised by graduate student assistants,” NU said in 2016.

Cameron Cook contributed reporting.

Correction: May 28, 10:33 p.m.
A previous version of this story said Northwestern research and teaching assistants would be classified as employees under an Illinois bill making its way through the state Senate. The bill would not impact graduate students at private universities, only public universities. 

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