The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is currently reconsidering whether graduate students at private universities, particularly doctoral students serving as teaching or research assistants, have the right to collectively bargain, a legal question that has undergone many reversals in recent years. For example, in 2000, the NLRB ruled that graduate students serving in these capacities at private universities are considered employees with the right to unionize. In 2004, in a case involving Brown University, that decision was reversed. This year, in light of recent cases and unionization efforts, the NLRB is considering overturning this last decision, which would once more allow graduate students at private institutions to form unions.
Depending on the outcome of the current cases, graduate students at Brown may soon find themselves presented with the legal option of forming a union and, as required for recognition, a graduate student vote to decide whether or not to do so. There are many opinions about the benefits and costs of unionization. Opponents, including some university administrations, the American Council on Education, and the Association of American Universities, argue that graduate students are not employees but students, and that collective bargaining will impinge on academic freedom and affect the mentee relationships that graduate students have with faculty and advisors. Proponents, including student organizations (such as Brown’s Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees), the American Association of University Professors, and the National Education Association, counter that graduate students are also employees who perform services and labor for their institutions and, therefore, have the right to collectively bargain for changes to their working conditions, stipends, and benefits.
The Graduate Student Council is a neutral body, representing the entire spectrum of graduate students, including both doctoral and master’s students. Each group holds different perspectives and concerns with respect to work, research, and the graduate student experience at our institution. Our constituents include those who are in favor of unionization, those who are opposed, those who are not quite sure, and everyone in between. To best represent all our constituents, we will continue to facilitate a fair and unbiased environment for conversation. Our wish is that if the decision to unionize comes to a vote, every graduate student can make an informed decision about not only whether or not to form a union, but also what such a union might look like, including its organizational structure and processes for action. Therefore, the Graduate Student Council will support balanced discussion and exchange on this subject. Our position is that while every student, organization, and administrative body at Brown should be able to advocate for beliefs that they view as beneficial to all graduate students, there cannot be aggressive interference from either side in the decision-making process or in any potential vote. Such a vote must and should be freely cast, and the Graduate Student Council supports this right for all graduate students, doctoral and master’s alike.
The Graduate Student Council will work to ensure that every student has the necessary information to develop a strong perspective on the issue and, pending the decision to pursue unionization, cast an informed vote. We will work to share materials presenting as many viewpoints and relevant concerns as possible and to organize a campus forum for publicly discussing these and other questions in the fall semester. In the meantime, as we await the NLRB ruling, we encourage you to conduct your own research on both past and current cases, as well as how other student unions and universities have moved on this issue.
Executive Board of the Brown University Graduate Student Council:
Aislinn Rowan, President
Anni Pullagura, Vice President of Advocacy
Joshua Cusano, Vice President of Communications
Alastair Tulloch, Nominations Officer
Kevin Cannon, Technology Officer
Samantha Gates, Treasurer
Kavosh Asadi, International Student Advocate
Wesley Bemus, Master’s Student Advocate
Lauren Watts, Co-vice President of Social Affairs
Adrien Stoloff, Co-vice President of Social Affairs
For those who would like to do some of their own research, listed below are the relevant cases.
The 2000 case in favor of unionization: New York University, 332 NLRB 111, 02-RC-22082
The 2004 case against unionization: Brown University, 342 NLRB 483, 01–RC–21368
The New School, 02-RC-143009
Columbia University, 02-RC-143012