Graduate student unions have long been fixtures at public colleges and institutions, but thanks to a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last year, graduate students at private institutions are now organizing and advocating for unions as well. Graduate students who work for the private universities they attend—perhaps as teaching or research assistants, proctors, and so on—hope that unionizing will help them to negotiate better terms for health insurance, pay, and conditions.
In 2004, the NLRB ruled against graduate students at Brown University who sought to form a union, asserting that graduate students who work for private universities are students, not workers, and any attempts to unionize would be an unfair intrusion on their education. For much of the next 10 years, this ruling was the final answer to the question of private graduate student unionization; however, in 2016, graduate students at Columbia University won recognition from the NLRB to form a union. In fact, since the ruling, Columbia’s graduate students voted 1,602 to 623 to join a union affiliated with the United Auto Workers (UAW), which will represent over 3,500 students.
The NLRB’s recent ruling overturned its previous position on graduate student unionizations, noting that the students could be considered employees since they performed tasks for and were paid by the university, and some experts have asserted that the ruling even leaves open the possibility for undergraduate students to unionize.
Universities, not surprisingly, have fiercely resisted this development. They argue that working while still a graduate student falls under the umbrella of education, not employment, because it is a form of training and continual development. Some universities also argue that they provide their graduate students with stipends and other compensation or benefits packages, a fact they say is often overlooked during discussions of unionization.
Despite the ruling, some universities are still resisting efforts to unionize: For example, Columbia has filed an appeal with the NLRB’s national office over alleged irregularities with the university’s union election. Yale University also disputes the validity of union elections that took place on its campus in February, and its refusal to recognize the graduate students’ union there has led to widespread protests and hunger strikes.