The National Labor Relations Board ruled on Tuesday that graduate students can be considered employees at private universities.
Any grad student who works as a teaching or research assistant now has far more power in their position. The 3-1 decision would allow grad students to unionize and negotiate for better benefits from their universities. This ruling overturns a previous 2004 Brown University decision where the board declared that grad students bargaining for benefits would undermine the educational value of student teaching.
Many universities require grad students to participate in student teaching or research in order to earn their degree, but many graduate student organizers argue that in these positions they are overworked and underpaid. Considering grad school labor, such as adjunct teaching, or being a research assistant, wasn’t protected by a union, student workers were forced to make ends meet with little pay and hectic hours.
Washington Post reports that the process to unionize grad students was started two years ago by research assistants from Columbia University and New School in New York respectively. The students filed independent petitions with the NLRB to join the United Auto Workers and begin the process of unionization for grad students.
Although the NLRB ruling is good news for grad students, some private colleges are not happy about the decision. According to ABC News, Columbia University issued a statement about the recent grad student ruling, saying the relationship between an employer and an employee is not the same as that of a college and a student.
Columbia said, “First and foremost, students serving as research or teaching assistants come to Columbia to gain knowledge and expertise, and we believe there are legitimate concerns about the impact of involving a non-academic third party in this scholarly training.”
Columbia isn’t alone in its opposition to the grad student ruling. The entire collection of Ivy League schools, plus Stanford and MIT, submitted briefs which argued that unionizing students would disrupt educational operations. The private colleges voiced concerns about upsetting class duration, grading time, and curriculum.
Although there has been some push back from universities, Columbia has announced that it would increase its stipend for students over the next four years. Students at Yale, Harvard, and Cornell have also been given inroads into unionizing.
While there are educational benefits for grad students working as teaching and research assistants, there is still a fundamental wage problem inside private colleges. Many grad students are older, they may have families and children, and they try and subside on a little less than $31,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, that figure may be lower depending on the varying pay of the college.
The unionization of grad students comes with an array of benefits for the newly minted employees. Students are hoping that this ruling will allow them to have more control over their work environment and gain more job security through protections like unpaid leave.
Health insurance is another issue in the NLRB grad student labor decision. Because grad students are paid so little, they can rarely afford their own health insurance or the coverage provided by the school. If grad students are considered employees, they could receive better benefits or at least have the option to bargain for more coverage.
By designating students as private college employees, the NLRB position could also effectively help lower student debt for grad students. Many students have to take out huge loans to fund their education, but they may never find a career to pay that money back. At this point, the concept has become accepted and even mocked by students. Earning more annually and attaining more benefits could help close that gap for grad students.
Ultimately, the decision gives grad students legitimacy as employees and allows them more control in an educational environment that comprises much of their adult lives. The United Auto Workers and SEIU are helping some students unionize now, but in the end the students will have control.
[Photo by Bob Child/AP Images]