October 17, 2017

A Step Aside, a Step in the Right Direction

If graduate students vote to unionize this week, the University should let it stand.

Graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants vote today and tomorrow on whether they would like to be represented by a union—specifically, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of University Professors, and Graduate Students United—in contract negotiations with the University. No result is guaranteed. Elections have broken both ways since the National Labor Relations Board reopened the possibility of graduate student unionization the August before last.

We editorialized in favor of graduate student unionization last spring. We continue to support that position, but as voting commences, we turn our attention to the most-damaging possible result for this University as a community of scholars: a pro-union result subsequently overturned on appeal. Given its forays into anti-union advocacy, the administration would likely cheer such an outcome, but the long-term consequences of such a result would be dire for University-student relations. If a majority of graduate students opt for union representation, the University should acknowledge their choice, drop their legal challenges, and proceed to contract negotiations.

Twice now, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), with Republican majorities, has ruled that graduate students are not employees for the purpose of the National Labor Relations Act and therefore cannot unionize. Twice again, subsequent Democratic majorities have overturned those rulings. Former president Barack Obama ended his second term with one of five seats on the board vacant; another of his appointees subsequently stepped down at the end of his term. Both seats have been filled by President Donald Trump, raising the prospect that the NLRB will reverse itself a fifth time. The University administration specifically refers to this new majority in their recent filings, asking the Board to delay the election and reconsider its most recent, pro-union decision.

If a majority of graduate students vote no, these appeals would become moot. If a majority votes yes, but is over-ruled by the University administration’s appeal, the results of the variously “well-informed,” “vigorous,” and “respectful” debate the administration has called for in its messages on the issue would be nullified. This scenario would leave the hypothetical pro-union majority of graduate students reasonably frustrated and distrustful—a prospect considerably more damaging to the collegial environment of the University than collective bargaining possibly could be.

Some future election will inevitably bring another relatively pro-labor administration into power in Washington. If history is any guide, a new majority on the NLRB will determine that graduate students working as teaching and research assistants do have a right to collective bargaining, and this process will start again. The graduate students advocating for unionization have already made clear they plan to continue to organize if the NLRB denies their right to do so through the formal avenue of federal labor law. A sustainable, amicable status quo, grounded in the law and ratified by the support of graduate students, has to be better than renewed legal wrangling every decade or so.

There is an alternative. The administrations at Brandeis University, Tufts University, and American University all expressed similar concerns about the prospect of unionization, but chose not to challenge successful pro-union votes. If the next two days produces a result in favor of graduate student unionization, the administration should likewise let it stand.

—The Maroon Editorial Board