Graduate Students Next on NLRB’s List for Union Expansion

Guest Blog: Natalie Wyman

This summer, the National Labor Relations Board will decide a case that will determine if graduate students can bargain as a union. And with a board that has been primarily appointed by Obama, it is very likely that there could be a ruling in favor of graduate students.

This would be a disaster for the higher education system.

Just think of the chaos: teaching assistants serve both as employees and as students, meaning that bargaining could be petty and disruptive. In an amicus brief filed by multiple private universities, the universities described a hypothetical situation in which graduate students could submit formal grievances because of something as simple as a change in a final exam format from multiple choice to essay because it could lead to more work for the teaching assistant. Such bargaining could remove the flexibility that is necessary to a university classroom.

Graduate students are just that: students. Their services to their respective universities are a part of their academic study, and they are admitted to their graduate program with education as the primary motivation. In a 2004 case at Brown University, the NLRB found that the graduate students who provide “services at a university in connection with their studies, have a predominantly academic, rather than economic, relationship with their school.” Their services should therefore be treated differently than that of the average unionized employee.

There have been no changes in the law or in the facts of the case since the Board’s decision in 2004 – there has only been a change in board composition. Obama has stacked the NLRB with members whose first priority is to expand union power.
Furthermore, this case comes on the heels of an NLRB decision that temporary and contract employees could unionize with the full-time employees that they work alongside of. That decision limited the choices that employers have when hiring; this latest decision could limit the options that private universities have for optimizing their educational experience.

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