NLRB: Graduate Students May Organize Unions

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. March 17, 2021

On March 12, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) cleared the way for graduate students who are paid to teach or conduct research to continue to organize at private colleges and universities, withdrawing a proposed rule that recommended barring them from unionizing.

Unionization drives at private colleges and universities have been increasingly successful during the pandemic.

We've gathered articles from SHRM Online and other trusted sources on the withdrawal of the proposed rule.

Board Has Wavered on Issue

The NLRB has wavered in recent years on whether graduate teaching assistants and other student workers at private universities can form unions. Labor rights were granted to student workers in 2000, rescinded in 2004 and restored in 2016. In 2019, the board's Republican majority issued a proposed rule that would have barred them from unionizing. The board stated that the relationship between students and schools "is predominately educational rather than economic."


NLRB Viewed Pay as Financial Aid

"Students typically receive funding regardless of the amount of time they spend researching or teaching, and only during the period that they are enrolled as students," the NLRB said when it issued its proposed rule. So, the NLRB concluded, the funds, which are provided to help pay the cost of students' education, "are better viewed as financial aid than as 'consideration' for work." Moreover, the board said its proposed rule upheld academic freedoms, including free speech in the classroom and academic decision-making.

(SHRM Online)

Successes at Public Universities

"The board's concerns cannot be reconciled with the real-world evidence that collective bargaining at public universities has proven both feasible and successful," said the National Education Association (NEA) in comments on the proposed rule. Decades of survey-based research shows that most public university faculty with unionized student workers say collective bargaining doesn't hinder advising the graduate students, developing mentor relationships or freely exchanging ideas, the NEA stated.


Focus on Other Priorities

The NLRB said that it was withdrawing the proposed rule "to focus its limited resources on competing agency priorities, including the adjudication of unfair labor practice and representation cases currently in progress."


Unionization Has Increased at Universities

Graduate students won unionization victories at several universities last year during the pandemic. These universities included American, Brown, Georgetown and Harvard. Brandeis, the New School, New York University and Tufts already had graduate unions. Collective bargaining agreements have been approved during the pandemic at public universities too, including at Oregon State University. In addition, graduate students at more than 75 universities in the United States and Canada have organized into a loose alliance demanding better pay and protections.

(The Washington Post)



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