Collective bargaining for graduate student interests

The development of labor unions that represent the rights of graduate students.

By Justin Strickland

Labor unions typical bring to mind basketball lockouts, writer strikes or villains from Ayn Rand novels. Recent years, however, have seen an increased focus on the development of labor unions representing the rights of graduate students. These unions have formed on the assumption that graduate students when serving as teaching assistants or research assistants are employees and as such, entitled to collective bargaining rights. This rationale is consistent with the often-cited purpose of graduate student unions, namely collective bargaining power for improved salaries, benefits and working conditions. Many of these concerns reflect issues raised by the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students in their recent outline of the rights of graduate students. Unions are then designed to safeguard these ideas, such as livable wages and adequate healthcare, as well provide legal recourse for students presenting with grievances.

An important distinction when determining the right to form graduate unions is whether a university is public or private. Public universities are under the jurisdiction of state labor laws and the ability to form a union determined by those laws. For example, California and New York provide explicit power to academic student employees of public universities to form unions, whereas Ohio explicitly excludes graduate students bargaining rights. In fact, some public universities have had fully-formed graduate student unions for decades, largely spurred by New Left and other prounion movements of the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

Renewed interests in graduate student unions are in part motivated by a 2016 decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and its impact on private universities, which are governed by decisions of the NLRB. In a landmark 2016 case, the NLRB overruled a 2004 decision that graduate students were not employees and therefore not afforded unionization rights. This ruling resulted in several high profile, and in most cases contentious, unionization efforts at institutions such as Duke, Yale and University of Chicago. Although efforts to overturn the 2016 decision are already underway, this case has ultimately brought to national attention student-led efforts to form unions dedicated to graduate student rights.

One challenge to unionization is the assumed strain on mentor-mentee relationships and potential conflicts surrounding the bargaining process. This complaint seems, on its face, valid and certainly has the potential to be realized. Data from collected from public universities with and without unions seem to refute these claim nevertheless and suggest some positive effects on mentor-mentee relations and general well-being associated with unions, including greater personal support, higher stipends and improved ratings of pay adequacy and fairness (Rogers et al., 2013). Although only a single study of select institutions, these data elegantly challenge the base assumption of strained academic relationships undermining a unionized study body.

The right to collective bargaining is certainly complex and cannot receive adequate coverage within the confines of this column. I hope that this discussion instead brings light, and associated desire for more information, to this challenging topic that is certain to touch the academic community for several years to come.