NLRB Sides With Student Library Workers, Against University

A three-member NLRB panel ruled Tuesday that the University “has engaged in unfair labor practices.”

By Lee Harris, Editor-in-Chief

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled Tuesday that the University of Chicago violated federal labor law by refusing to recognize and bargain with student library workers in the Student Library Employees Union (SLEU).

The decision comes nearly 18 months after student library workers voted to unionize. Following that vote, the University raised several challenges which were subsequently dismissed, with the NLRB ruling against all remaining objections in May of this year.

The University did not begin bargaining with SLEU, but held out—not an uncommon tactic for employers who may hope that the Board will overturn itself or that organizing will dissipate. SLEU subsequently filed an unfair labor practice charge, and the NLRB returned its decision this week, ordering UChicago to recognize and bargain with student library workers.

“By failing and refusing, since about March 27, 2018, to recognize and bargain with the Union as the exclusive collective-bargaining representative of employees in the appropriate unit, the Respondent [the University of Chicago] has engaged in unfair labor practices,” the three-member NLRB panel found.

The University now has the option to appeal the decision to circuit courts.

Brendan Crowley, a Teamsters Local 743 attorney representing SLEU, told The Maroon he doubts the University would win on appeal because the NLRB is the recognized body for interpreting and administering labor law and a circuit court is unlikely to overturn a decision within the NLRB’s purview.

SLEU’s next steps include filing information requests—the University’s refusal to bargain has meant the union lacked access to information about student library workers, including contact information and job titles—as well as setting up a bargaining committee and demanding that the University negotiate with workers.

Pressed on whether the University will now come to the bargaining table, spokesperson Marielle Sainvilus declined to give specifics, saying only that the University is “currently reviewing the decision of the NLRB to determine next steps.”

“It is ridiculous and embarrassing that the University has dragged this legal battle on so long,” SLEU representative third-year Sophia Lubarr said in a statement to The Maroon. “We look forward to building a democratic and equitable workplace, affirming the free speech of student library workers, since the University is clearly loath to do so.”

Lubarr also acknowledged the likelihood of more delays, including a possible appeal.

“Given their track record, they will likely drag this out as long as possible. Despite that, we hope they will sit down with us, and we are heartened by this decision.”

If the University decides to bargain with SLEU, it could affect over 200 students—as of the election last year, there were 225 student library workers eligible to vote—spanning the entire University of Chicago Library system, including students employed at the Joseph Regenstein Library, the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, Eckhart Library, John Crerar Library, D'Angelo Law Library, and the Social Services Administration Library.

Fourth-year SLEU representative Katie McPolin noted that the decision comes at an important moment for labor in higher education, on the heels of Grinnell University student worker union’s decision to unionize. “When admin are provided the opportunity to engage with student workers—both in GSU and in SLEU—they have chosen, over and over again, to silence student voices. We are excited for this movement forward on the path to a democratic university,” McPolin told The Maroon.

Undergraduate unionization, a nascent form of labor organizing, is coming under increased scrutiny nationally as student workers clash with administrations reluctant to bargain with a new class of employees.

In 2016, student dining hall workers at Grinnell College voted overwhelmingly to form what remains one of the only independent undergraduate unions at a private college, the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW). Grinnell administrators have refused to bargain with UGSDW, appealing the decision.

Just this week, tensions at Grinnell escalated. The Des Moines Register reported that UGSDW members plan to vote tomorrow on whether to authorize a strike in the face of the college’s continued refusal to bargain.

The Obama-era NLRB opened the door to undergraduate student organizing when it found in 2016 that Columbia University student assistants at private colleges are employees protected under the National Labor Relations Act. Under the Republican-controlled NLRB, however, the future of undergraduate unionization is uncertain.

Crowley warned against interpreting the SLEU decision as heralding a victory for undergraduate student organizing or a re-certification of the board’s decision on Columbia student assistants.

“I don’t think this is an indication that the Trump board is going to continue to uphold Columbia,” he said.