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Posts Tagged ‘student workers’

Graduate Workers Are Going to Fight Like Hell to Stop the Trump NLRB’s New Rule

Thursday, September 26th, 2019

At universities across the country, graduate student workers perform essential labor. We teach classes, grade exams and assignments, tutor and mentor undergraduates, maintain labs, and perform clerical duties. Some 66,000 graduate employees at over 30 universities in the United States are currently represented by unions and protected through collective bargaining agreements, because public-sector labor laws in many states recognize the obvious—we are workers.

In August 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a landmark decision recognizing that graduate employees at private universities—who do the same labor as their counterparts at public universities—are also workers, and therefore also have collective bargaining rights. Since then, private universities have seen an explosion of graduate worker organizing. At least nine now have recognized grad unions, and five of those already have union contracts in place.

But now President Trump is trying to permanently reverse the 2016 decision. His anti-union appointees who control the National Labor Relations Board declared on September 20 that graduate workers at private institutions are not workers at all, but only “students,” and therefore have no right to union representation or collective bargaining. Traditionally, the NLRB settles questions of labor law through case-by-case decisions, but this time it’s exercising its rarely used rulemaking authority to set a definitive policy.

Before the rule can be implemented, there is a 60-day public comment period, which opened on September 23. The unions representing grad workers at private universities—including AFT, SEIU, UAW and UNITE HERE—are teaming up by calling on all graduate workers and allies to submit a public comment to the NLRB expressing opposition to the proposed rule. Their goal is to get 30,000 comments. With enough public pressure, the unions hope to stop—or at least delay—the new rule.

“We’re looking at having flyers, petitions, delegations, rallies, and of course commenting guidelines, to engage as many folks as possible,” says Yiran Zhang a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Loyola University Chicago.

Zhang is co-chair of the SEIU-affiliated Loyola University Chicago Graduate Worker Union, which the university has refused to recognize or bargain with despite a majority of graduate employees voting to unionize in February 2017. The administration has also faced multiple protests, including a civil disobedience action and march this past spring.

“This is a crossroads for Loyola,” Zhang explains. “They must either publicly show they stand on the side of workers who are increasingly coming under attack by bargaining with us, or they will show once again that they eschew their professed social justice values to simply hide behind Trump’s anti-labor policies.”

Nationally, graduate employees have taken on increasingly heavy teaching workloads in recent years while making poverty wages and receiving few benefits. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of graduate workers employed by universities increased by 16.7 percent, while the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty rose by only 4.8 percent. Meanwhile, executive compensation at private universities has sharply increased, with the presidents of 61 private universities now making over $1 million every year.

The argument that graduate employees are not “real” workers is as old as it is absurd. It’s not an invention of Trump’s NLRB, but of university administrators who are determined to profit off of the exploited labor of their grad workers, and don’t want unions to get in the way.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of when the Teaching Assistants’ Association at the University of Wisconsin-Madison became the first recognized graduate worker union in the country. Since then, graduate workers at dozens of other public institutions—where labor relations are governed by state laws instead of the NLRB—have won union recognition.

Almost every time, administrators fought tooth and nail to prevent unionization by trotting out the same line that grad workers are more “students” than “employees.” That’s because, once they’re required to negotiate with grad unions, administrators are eventually forced to guarantee higher wages, better healthcare, tuition and fee waivers, grievance procedures, protections against discrimination and other rights through union contracts.

After half a century, it should be obvious that the “students not workers” argument is nothing more than anti-union propaganda. In reality, there’s no question that graduate workers are indeed workers who can and should have collective bargaining rights.

While universities claim to be dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and truth, administrators hate unions so much they are now allying themselves with the most anti-intellectual and mendacious president in history. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the same institutions that often cover up campus sexual assault and readily roll out the welcome mat for white supremacists have found common cause with the racist sexual predator who occupies the White House.

For all the talk from universities of fostering collegial dialogue and debate, administrators are afraid to sit down at the bargaining table and negotiate with their own workers. For all the talk of promoting critical thinking, they cling to lazy union-busting talking points. For all the talk of commitment to diversity and democracy, they do everything possible to prevent their graduate student workers from having an independent voice.

If campus administrators and Trump’s NLRB insist that graduate workers at private institutions really aren’t workers, then perhaps they should all decide to collectively stop working—and see just how long the universities can function without their labor.

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.

Think It’s Tough for Labor Now? Just Wait Until Trump Takes Office in January

Friday, November 18th, 2016

photo_321703[1]In 63 days, organized labor is going to find itself in a new political reality, which it seems totally unprepared for. Donald Trump will be president; the Republicans will control the House and Senate and one of Trump’s first tasks will be to nominate a new Supreme Court justice. Though Trump was tight-lipped about specific policy proposals, his campaign and the current constitution of the Republican party do not bode well for labor.

Trump’s actions will largely fall into one of four categories: judicial, legislative, executive and at the level of federal agencies. Each potential move will take various levels of cooperation from other branches of government and varying amounts of time to complete.

On Day 1 of his new administration, President Trump can simply rescind many of Barack Obama’s executive orders that benefited large groups of workers. Chief among these were EO 13673, which required prospective federal contractors to disclose violations of state and federal labor laws, and helped protect employees of contractors from wage theft and mandatory arbitration of a variety of employment claims. Similarly, EO 13494 made contractor expenses associated with union busting non-allowable, thereby helping to ensure that workers can exercise their labor rights.

At the agency level, Trump will have the opportunity to fill vacancies on the five-person National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), effectively turning what has been one of the most pro-worker boards in recent memory into one that is more concerned with employers’ interests. The NLRB is one of the more politicized federal agencies, and it is not uncommon for a new NLRB to overturn a previous board’s rulings. A conservative board would put into jeopardy recent gains, including the requirement of joint employers to bargain with workers, the rights of graduate students to form unions, the rights of adjuncts at religious colleges to form unions and the protections from class action waivers in employment arbitration agreements, which effectively block access to justice for too many.

Similarly, Trump can immediately dismiss the entire Federal Service Impasses Panel (FSIP) and appoint his own members. The FSIP is a little-known federal agency that functions like a mini-NLRB to resolve disputes between unionized federal employees and the government.

Donald Trump may be able to not only roll back many of Barack Obama’s accomplishments, but also change the face of labor law for decades to come. (AFL-CIO/ Facebook)

Donald Trump may be able to not only roll back many of Barack Obama’s accomplishments, but also change the face of labor law for decades to come. (AFL-CIO/ Facebook)

At the legislative level, various anti-worker bills sit ready for a GOP-led push. Perhaps chief among them is the National Right to Work Act, which would place every private sector employee (including airline and railway employees currently under the Railway Labor Act) under right-to-work. Right-to-work is the misleading law that prohibits unions from requiring that workers represented by the union pay their fair share. Such a bill was introduced last year by Sen. Rand Paul, and it had 29 co-sponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump announced on the campaign trail that his “position on right-to-work is 100 percent,” so this will likely be an area where he has common cause with the GOP-controlled Congress.

At the judicial level, there is also a strong possibility that we will see a sequel to the Friedrichs case at the Supreme Court. Friedrichs was widely anticipated to bar fair share fees and place all public sector employees under right-to-work, but ended in a deadlock after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. It is likely that any Supreme Court justice that Trump chooses will be as critical of fair share fees as Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts, and would provide a critical fifth vote in changing long-standing precedent regarding the allowance of such fees. Groups like the National Right to Work Committee and Center for Individual Rights often have cases in the pipeline that could be pushed to the Supreme Court when the opportunity arises.

Similarly, at the judicial level, Trump will likely have his Department of Labor drop appeals to court decisions that enjoined or overturned pro-worker rules, such as the rule requiring union-busters to disclose when they are involved in an organizing campaign. Dropping the appeals would be an easy route to kill the rules, rather than going through a more time consuming rulemaking process to rescind them.

All indications are that labor has been caught unprepared for a President Trump and a GOP-controlled Congress and Supreme Court. With such broad control over every branch of government, Trump may be able to not only roll back many of Obama’s accomplishments, but also change the face of labor law for decades to come.

This post originally appeared on inthesetimes.com on November 17, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.

It’s Game On for Grad Students After NLRB Rules They Can Unionize

Monday, September 12th, 2016

rebeccanathanson

December 5 fell on a Friday in 2014; in New York City, the air was crisp. At Columbia University, about 200 graduate student-workers pulled on hats and scarves to gather on the imposing steps of Low Library, which houses the university president’s office. While most stood in a block formation, holding signs declaring their department names, a small delegation went inside to deliver a letter to the president. It asked that he voluntarily recognize their union, the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW Local 2110), which a majority of graduate employees supported.

When the administration declined to reply, GWC and the United Auto Workers (UAW), with which it is affiliated, petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to certify their union. A complicated legal process ensued.

For more than a decade, the NLRB considered graduate employees to be students, not workers. As such, they did not have the same legal rights of most employees, including the right to organize. All that changed two weeks ago when the NLRB decision on the Columbia case finally came back, siding with the student-workers and their right to collective bargaining.

“Obviously, it’s a huge push for us and it’s caused a lot of excitement and enthusiasm,” says Ian Bradley-Perrin, a PhD student in sociomedical sciences and history, who has worked as both a teaching and research assistant.

After months of approaching people with hypotheticals, he says that he and his fellow organizers can now speak in concrete terms: “We’re going to have an election. We are now recognized as workers. So it’s just been talking to people about what a union actually means, how the union is organized democratically, how people’s interests will be represented in the union.”

Graduate teaching and research assistants at a handful of private universities have been working towards unionization for years. Their administrations have largely been able to ignore their actions, citing the NLRB’s designation of them as students. Now, however, their efforts can finally move forward. They have the legal right to hold union elections and then negotiate contracts, providing them a collective voice in the terms of their employment. Already, the NLRB’s ruling is invigorating existing campaigns and inspiring new ones.

Graduate employees at many public universities have long enjoyed the right to unionize, but their peers at private universities have faced a long, serpentine route to achieve that same right. (Rebecca Nathanson)

Graduate employees at many public universities have long enjoyed the right to unionize, but their peers at private universities have faced a long, serpentine route to achieve that same right. (Rebecca Nathanson)

Path to recognition

Graduate employees at many public universities have long enjoyed the right to unionize, but their peers at private universities have faced a long, serpentine route to achieve that same right. In 2001, graduate employees at New York University (NYU) became the country’s first to form a union and negotiate a contract at a private university, providing teaching assistants with wage increases and improved working conditions.

Three years later, graduate employees at Brown University attempted to do the same, but the NLRB, which had then shifted to a Republican majority, ruled that graduate employees were primarily students, not workers. In 2005, the NYU union’s contract expired and, using the 2004 Brown decision as precedent, the administration refused to negotiate a new one.

NYU’s administration kept firm to that stance until fall 2013, when it offered to voluntarily recognize the union. More than 98 percent of graduate employees voted in favor of the union, making it, once again, the only graduate employee union at a private university.

Organizers across the country were anxious to follow in their footsteps. Last month’s NLRB ruling gives them a shot in the arm.

At Harvard University, graduate student organizer Abigail Weil is particularly excited by the expansive way in which the NLRB defined a graduate employee in its ruling: “It’s broader and more inclusive than even we had hoped for. That’s just that many more people that we can talk to and fold into the bargaining unit as we create it.”

In its decision, the NLRB writes, “It is appropriate to extend statutory coverage to students working for universities covered by the (National Labor Relations) Act unless there are strong reasons not to do so.” It continues, “We will apply that standard to student assistants, including assistants engaged in research funded by external grants.” Not only does this include research assistants in addition to teaching assistants, but, Weil posits, it could also be interpreted as including working Masters students—and possibly even working undergraduates.

According to Weil, the Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU-UAW) plans to file a petition for an election. She can already see a change in campus support.

“We’re thrilled at how many people were following the NLRB story,” she says. “Since that decision has come out, probably two-thirds of the people that we talk to now bring (it) up without us having to bring that up or explain it.”

Organizers at The New School, in New York City, are experiencing a similar phenomenon.

Like at Columbia, graduate employees at The New School asked their administration to voluntarily recognize their union. When that didn’t work, they too petitioned the NLRB for certification, only to hit the wall created a decade earlier by the Brown decision.

“We had our first meeting of the year on Monday and we had probably three times as many people show up,” says Eli Nadeau, a Masters student in the politics department at The New School. “We’re planning for an election because Columbia’s ruling covers us.”

Graduate workers at Cornell University took a slightly different approach to winning collective bargaining rights. While biding their time until the NLRB ruled on the Columbia case, they negotiated and signed a code of conduct with their administration in May. The document outlines the mechanisms by which a union election would take place and the behavior expected of both sides.

“Our next steps are really just working on the union. We are building outreach and finding out what our members’ concerns are,” explains Ben Norton, a PhD student in the music department and the communications and outreach chair of Cornell Graduate Students United, the university’s graduate employee union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

“We wasted no time”

Campaigns on numerous campuses have been galvanized by the Columbia decision, but graduate employees at Yale University took perhaps the swiftest action in its wake. Less than a week after the ruling, they filed a petition to hold an election to certify their union with the NLRB.

“We wasted no time. It was really exciting for the path to victory to open up and for us to really take advantage of it,” says Aaron Greenberg, a PhD student in the political science department and chair of Local 33-UNITE HERE, which represents Yale’s graduate teaching and research assistants.

In filing their petition, UNITE HERE and organizers at Yale are creating yet another variation on a graduate employee union. Rather than file as an entire unit of employees across the university, they did so department-by-department, starting with 10 departments.

“We really want a process that reflects how our work is organized. How much you get paid, what kind of work you do, what kind of hours you do really depend on the department,” explains Greenberg. Plus, he adds, “We’re hoping that by filing each department separately and starting with departments where the desire to unionize is overwhelmingly clear, we can avoid wasteful legal gamesmanship, unnecessary delays, and that the university will respect the democratic will of the members of these departments, who have made clear, time and time again, that they want a union.”

One of the next steps for graduate employees at many of the private universities hoping to take advantage of the recent NLRB decision will be working out the exact parameters of the bargaining unit: who it covers and who it excludes is not yet completely clear. But in the meantime, they will, for the first time in more than a decade, be able to move closer towards unionization without legal barriers—barriers which, organizers believe, were knocked down by the force of the organizing that took place in those intervening years.

“Labor law follows organizing, not the other way around,” says Weil. “We have been organizing to the full extent of our abilities, not the full extent of our legal rights. We’re happy to have those rights restored.”

This article was originally posted at InTheseTimes.com on September 9, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Rebecca Nathanson is a freelance writer in New York City. She has written for Al Jazeera America, n+1, The Nation, NewYorker.com,The Progressive, RollingStone.com, and more.

Labor board says graduate students can unionize

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

LauraClawson

According to the George W. Bush-era National Labor Relations Board, graduate students at private universities didn’t count as employees of those universities, no matter how much employment-type work they did. That means those students couldn’t unionize. Now, the NLRB has reversed that, saying graduate students can unionize:

First, the board rejected argument that graduate students cannot be employees because their relationship to their employer remains “primarily educational.” This interpretation, the board wrote, cannot actually be found in the “statutory text” of federal labor law, and cannot be derived from its “fundamental policy.” Instead, the board asked whether colleges and students had a “common-law employment relationship,” with the school exerting control over its student employees and compensating them for their labor. Because such a relationship obviously exists, students may be considered “employees” of the universities for which they work.

 As for the earlier ruling’s other concerns, the NLRB noted that almost all of them are “purely theoretical.” There is no empirical evidence that collective bargaining would somehow destroy the relationship between working graduate students and their employers by disrupting “traditional goals of higher education.” There is no proof that collective bargaining might restrict freedom of expression in the university setting. Indeed, graduate students at public universities have been unionizing for years without imperiling their school’s academic mission. And recent research has found “no support” for the assertion that graduate student unionization “would harm the faculty-student relationship” or “would diminish academic freedom.”

Students are now free to organize to change situations like this:

In the most recent academic year, Laura Hung, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at American University, earned $19,200 as a teaching and research assistant. The money was barely enough to cover her $1,000 rent and certainly not enough to pay for the health insurance offered by the university, she said. Hung is on Medicaid and said she is just $200 a year shy of qualifying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a form of welfare.

“Being a teaching and research assistant is important; it’s given me valuable classroom experience. What we do has an educational benefit, but the fact of the matter is we’re not paid fair wages,” said Hung, 31, who is finishing up her dissertation. “We work well over the hours we’re supposed to and as a result wind up being paid minimum wage or less. That’s not enough to live in D.C. Trying to make ends meet every month is virtually impossible.”

Organizing is easier said than done, of course, with some universities having shown themselves as willing to fight unionization as any major corporation. But at least now the government won’t throw up an added barrier.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on August 23, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

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