Monday, September 12, 2016

On the Recent NLRB Ruling in Favour of Grad Student Unions

Definitions matter. It’s a lesson I teach my Composition students every year: define your terms. Redefine old terms. Assert your intimate understanding of the topic and sculpt out the contours of your study at the outset. Writing a paper on gentrification? Identify and describe what that term means right away, so you can prove you’re in control and the reader can trust you as guide her through the paper.

In Canada, graduate students employed by the university have been allowed to unionize since a 1975 decision by the Ontario Labour Relations Board in the case of a graduate association at York University. Most major Canadian universities contain at least one student union, though it is important to note these unions are not the same as legally recognized collective bargaining units (*thanks for this important correction by the anonymous commenter below). These are not all affiliated with a larger national union, but as often funded and subsidized by the government, they retain autonomous power over their working conditions and ability to speak and act as a collective. The Canadian Federation of Students exists in order to represent the graduate employee needs of publicly funded universities. I’m not always on-board with the idealization of Canada that happens down here in the States, but this is one issue where I’m like - omg, yes.

In the US, public universities function under state law, and most of the major ones were unionized by the end of the twentieth century. Prior to 2000, and between 2004 and 2016, graduate students at American private universities were defined primarily as students rather than employees, blocking their ability to unionize on the basis that any labour conducted for the university serves as mere apprenticeship, training students for our future jobs. But, in this precarious academic climate, students are no longer satisfied with treating graduate school as a holding period for a future that may never come. In 2015, the super awesome graduate workers at New York University (many of whom I’m proud to count as friends) set the precedent for altering the NLRB’s ruling, and Columbia’s appeal for official recognition for private universities has just, in late August, been approved, reversing the Brown University ruling from 2004, and dispensing of an Amicus Brief submitted by a number of leading Ivy League universities voicing their opposition to the proposed ruling (using the dubious reasoning that collective bargaining would detract from the educational experience).

The Board Decision, found here, states in no uncertain terms that "student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees under the Act," countering the Brown University Board claim that graduate assistants are "primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university." This is a victory of definitions--of better defining who is and isn’t an employee, who is and isn’t an employer, and what it means to be both a student studying to enhance the mind and a labourer working to enhance the university. It is both/and, not either/or. Already, in response to this decision, universities like Columbia have crafted subtly anti-union websites to try to dissuade students from acting on this decision (not linking, for obvious reasons). The campaign against graduate student workers has moved from a national to a local level.

Many grad students, especially those in the first years of the program, are beset by an innate sense of gratitude and obsequiousness toward their superiors; I remember this. Just the other day an anxious facebook status popped up in my Timehop wherein I bewailed the accidental sending of an email about graduate student business to a number of faculty members as well. I remember being afraid to speak up about conditions that seemed latently unfair, because hey - I’m tough, we’re all in this together, that person seems worse off than I am, I can handle being asked to work a few extra hours a week beyond my contract, right? Wouldn’t want to stir the pot and risk creating enemies.

But unions can give collective voice to these individual grievances, rendering instances of injustice both less personal and more urgent. And faculty should be on our side too--happier working conditions for us means happier working conditions for faculty.

Some believe that we should be grateful for the luxury of engaging in ideas of the mind, that this work is inherently fulfilling, and besides: we are not coal miners, whose working conditions are objectively worse than ours. According to such positions, by barely making above minimum wage, we are participating in a centuries-old tradition of the suffering monk, bent over his poorly lit desk and scratching away at parchment until the wee hours of the morning. There is a beauty and a nobility in that. But as a medievalist, I know that even these monks sometimes scribbled exasperated comments in the margins; they probably deserved and desired better working conditions, too! And as for the coal miner: true, we don’t experience the physical and mental duress and possible health risks of working long hours in a dingy mine. But we do face rampant mental health issues that we can’t even talk about for fear of demonstrating unfitness for the very conditions that have made us this way, and some of us confuse self care with actual care, neglecting to look after our basic needs. The presence of extreme suffering in the world does not negate the hardship we might also face, but on a relatively smaller scale.

A quick read through any of the extant graduate union contracts shows that graduate student unions empower the graduate community, giving them some control and autonomy over the precarious working conditions that enable institutional exploitation of cheap labour. But they also do more than this. Grad student unions can help us reach outside the bounds of the academy and partner with existing social movements in order to advocate for broader social change, examples of which are the grad union votes around the BDS movement, or actions against police unions inspired by #blacklivesmatter. Hillary Clinton, to her credit, praised the NLRB decision on Twitter, but elsewhere condemned BDS. The conversation is becoming more heated and more urgent, and as the new school year rolls into full swing, and election day draws (looms?) ever closer, I'm eager to see how the conversations will shift.

Definitions matter. I speak the voice of “we” and of “us” here, but technically I’m not part of the student body anymore - definitionally speaking. Like now Doctor Melissa (yay!!!!), it has been 25 consecutive years since I’ve entered the Fall semester not as a student, having successfully defended my dissertation in late August. But I still care about students’ rights, and I care about social movements that can mutually thrive and grow together, like the fight for graduate employee representation at private universities, the fight for more fair and equitable treatment of adjunct workers and other contingent faculty, and even the fight for just treatment of permanent faculty, who at Long Island University in Brooklyn have recently been locked out alongside their sessional brethren (ousted from their positions the day before the semester, deprived access to their university emails and health insurance, and replaced by temporary workers of dubious origin). Graduate employee, adjunct professor, and tenure-track professor alike, we’re all in this together.
Other works cited: 
Zinni, Deborah M., Parbudyal Singh, and Anne F. MacLennan. "An Exploratory Study of Graduate Student Unions in Canada." Relations Industrielles / Industrial Relations 60.1 (2005): 145-176. JSTOR.  


  1. Thanks for this informative article about the NRLB decision. It's great to see people bringing attention to this important victory.
    In the spirit of definitions mattering, it's worth noting that in Canada, student unions, which function as advocacy bodies, are not the same as labour unions, which are legally recognized collective bargaining agents. The Canadian Federation of Students represents some student unions but has nothing to do with collective bargaining and labour unions. Some of the labour unions representing graduate student workers in Canada include the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, and the Teaching and Support Staff Union.

    1. Thanks so much for pointing this out--I've added a brief correction above. I had a feeling something was slightly off on this point!


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