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Stanford University

Trump's NLRB: Grad Student's Don't Have a Right to a Union

The board wants to make it illegal for these workers to organize

Brian Young's picture
Sep 23, 2019

At some of the most elite and expensive colleges and universities in the country, graduate students are being used as a cheap alternative to professors. While universities call this part of their academics, grad students believe that this makes them an employee of the school. After all, they are getting paid. As employees, these students want the right to form a union, but they may not have the right to do so if Trump’s NLRB has its way.

Over the past few decades, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has flip-flopped on whether graduate students have the right to join a union. In 2000 a board full of Democratic appointees said that NYU grad students had the right to organize. That decision was then overruled in 2004 when the Republican board ruled against Brown students forming a union. Then in 2016 the board, which was full of Obama appointees, ruled in favor of students at Columbia University. Now the Trump board wants to take away that right.

While these previous decisions were done on a case by case basis, Trump’s NLRB wants to institute a “rule.” With a strong Republican and anti-union majority on the board, this rule could have an impact that lasts long after Trump is out of the White House.

The decision to ban graduate student unions comes after 12 universities organized since the 2016 Columbia decision. Colleges and universities have fought back against this organizing effort because it takes away a low-cost workforce. These schools use these grad students for several jobs, including having them teach classes or seminars. They are paid for this work and function as both staff and students at the school. For schools like Columbia or Brown, the use of low paid graduate students represents a significant cost saving over a professor who will likely demand a six-figure salary.

At public universities (which the NLRB does not have jurisdiction over) graduate students’ role as employees has been recognized for years. In strong union states, like New York, tens of thousands of graduate students at state schools are members of a union. In New York, SUNY grad students are a part of the Communications Workers of America Local 1104.  

To stop these organizing efforts, schools have argued that grad students work in the classroom represents on the job training and says that they aren’t really employees but rather their relationship to the school is that of a student.  This is a similar argument that the NCAA uses when arguing against paying college athletes.

Now that the NLRB has proposed the new rule, there will be a 60-day comment period. If you would like to submit a comment in favor of allowing graduate student unions, please click here.

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