University Files Against Graduate Unionization Election

The University is also challenging a related ruling by the National Labor Relations Board in a case involving Columbia University.

By Tyrone Lomax, News Editor

The University has filed in opposition to Graduate Students United (GSU)'s recent petition to be recognized as the bargaining representative for many of the university's graduate students. The University's filing challenges the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)'s ruling in last year’s case involving Columbia University.

In its ruling last August against Columbia University, the NLRB established that graduate students who work as teaching or research assistants at private universities are classified as workers under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), allowing them to collectively bargain for pay and working conditions. This decision overturned a precedent set by an earlier NLRB case at Brown University in 2004.

GSU, an organization involved in organizing students since 2007, took advantage of the change in the legal landscape to file for a union certification election at the University. If the election goes forward and more than half of the ballots cast support representation by GSU, GSU will represent many of the graduate students with research and teaching responsibilities in contract negotiations with the University.

According to the University's filing with the NLRB, the University is proposing that graduate students are not employees under the NLRA and cannot be represented by GSU. The University argues that an employer-employee dynamic is not present within its relationship to graduate students, thereby nullifying GSU’s petition.

The University also cites the different circumstances surrounding the University’s and Columbia’s graduate students as grounds that Columbia’s ruling does not apply to the University’s graduate students. According to the document, distinctions between the two groups include the vital nature teaching holds within the University’s Ph.D. educational program, the expectations to which Ph.D. students are held, and the fact that graduates are not compensated but receive supportive funding by the University.

In an e-mail to The Maroon, a University spokesperson stressed the importance of the different circumstances between graduate students at Columbia and those here.

The timing and manner of the election is also a subject of dispute between the University and GSU. The GSU's petition called for a vote by mail between May 30 and June 20, since many graduate students will have left campus for the summer quarter.

In its filing with the NLRB, University suggests that if GSU’s election is not completed by May 31, it should be postponed until September 25 in order to maximize the ability of graduate students to vote.

The University argues that mail ballots would be inappropriate, since none of the three criteria (a scattering of eligible voters due to geographically distant job duties, schedule conflicts, or a strike in process) cited by the NLRB in the past to justify the use of mail ballots apply in this context. Furthermore, according to the document, the use of mail ballots over the summer is disfavored by the NLRB, and would complicate the voting process.  

These arguments were also presented yesterday at a pre-election hearing in front of an NLRB official in the agency's downtown office. 

Starting at 9 a.m. today, the pre-election hearing will continue. During this hearing, a hearing officer will consider arguments from both the employer (University) and petitioner (GSU). Peter Sung Ohr, the NLRB director for the Chicagoland region, will eventually rule on whether and how the certification election can go forward. 

Daniela Palmer, a fifth-year graduate student and GSU member, expressed optimism for GSU’s future. “We are awaiting to hear the outcome of [the] hearings with the University that will determine when and how the election happens,” she said. “[I]n the meantime, we are continuing to engage with our members and speak to the campus community more broadly as well to continue to gather support and momentum.”