Labor Board Says No to Grad Unions

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Joined by other graduate students, GET-UP chair David Faris speaks out at a Penn trustees meeting in February.

Graduate Education | The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that graduate students at Brown and other private universities do not have the right to form unions—a decision that could thwart a three-year organizing effort at Penn.

In the majority opinion of the board, “Graduate-student assistants … are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.” The ruling, they wrote, “turns on our fundamental belief that the imposition of collective bargaining on graduate students would improperly intrude into the educational process.” 

Penn’s administration, which has opposed the unionization drive here, applauded the July decision. “We are pleased that this ruling is behind us so that we can move forward with our commitment to strengthening graduate education at Penn,” President Amy Gutmann announced. “We are eager to work with our faculty and graduate-student groups to ensure that we are providing the best possible educational experience for all of our graduate students in all of our graduate and professional programs.”

With the recent ruling—split 3-2, between Republican and Democratic appointees—the NLRB overturned its own 2000 decision, which had allowed New York University graduate students to form unions and sparked a flurry of organizing on other campuses like Penn. 

In February 2003, an election was held to determine whether Penn graduate students would unionize. The University appealed to the NLRB, and the votes were never counted. Graduate students who support a union held a two-day strike this past February to protest the impasse. Penn’s case has now been referred to a regional director in Philadelphia for a decision.

“I will call it a completed issue when we have a ruling in our case but I think the overwhelming logic of the Brown findings would lead inevitably to the conclusion that the finding in Brown will lead to an identical finding in Penn,” said Interim Provost Peter Conn.

Dillon Brown, a graduate student in English and a spokesperson for Graduate Employees Together-UPenn, said his group was “deeply disappointed” in the July decision, which “relies on an outmoded, highly romanticized view of higher education. It fails to recognize the growing casualization of academic employment—the use of graduate assistants and adjuncts to do what tenured faculty used to do.” In spite of this set-back, he said, GET-UP “will continue organizing to improve the lives of Penn’s graduate employees, working for reforms that would make the University a better, fairer, and more democratic institution. We are well aware that such changes rarely come via legal niceties from above, but from extended, concerted efforts by the people who see the need for such change in its most immediate way. GET-UP plans to continue to organize until the force of our logic becomes institutionally irresistible.”

Union supporters at Penn seek higher pay for graduate students’ work as teaching and research assistants, as well as more training and other improvements. Administrators point to the pay and benefits package they already receive, such as free tuition, insurance, and annual stipends of $15,000 or higher.

Conn said the NLRB ruling “articulates the position that this university and every other private university has been defending, by holding very properly that our graduate students are students and are not in any meaningful sense employees within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act.”

Conn added, “Our students come here for academic reasons to work with one of the finest faculties in the country to be trained toward the Ph.D. They are evaluated throughout the course of their career, taking exams, doing coursework and research, and eventually graduate as professionals. The teaching that they do is integrally related to their training.”

In a dissenting opinion, two NLRB members wrote that the ruling “errs in seeing the academic world as somehow removed from the economic realm that labor law addresses—as if there was no room in the ivory tower for a sweatshop.” They added, “Today the academy is also a workplace for many graduate students, and disputes over work-related issues are common. As a result, the policies of the [labor act]—increasing the bargaining power of employees, encouraging collective bargaining, and protecting freedom of association—apply in the university context, too.”

The dissenters also cited studies “ignored by the majority, which show that collective bargaining has not harmed mentoring relationships between faculty members and graduate students.”

Conn emphasized Penn’s past and continued support for graduate education. “We have worked hard as a university, and school by school, to create both educational and financial resources that permit these students to make good progress aside from the elevation, year by year, in stipend levels,” he said. “Just within the last three years, we have added full-payment of the health premium for fully funded Ph.D. students through six years, and we have opened the Graduate Student Center in which we made a substantial investment.” In both cases, he added, “these steps were taken in consultation with elected graduate-student leadership [Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and Graduate Student Associations Council], who have played historically and continue to play an extremely important role in representing the interests of graduate students. We have no intention of slowing down in our efforts to continue improving the educational and financial circumstances for our students.”—S.F.

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