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The National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that graduate student workers at private institutions may now form unions. But they need to vote to unionize first. In the meantime, a handful of institutions, including those with active graduate assistant union campaigns, have either launched or updated websites that they term information, but that are attracting criticism as being “anti-union.” Others say universities have an obligation to inform students of the drawbacks to unionization — not just the benefits. 

“What’s frustrating to me is the false moderation here, under the guise of making information available, when what’s actually being presented is a partisan argument against unionization,” Paul Katz, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Columbia University, said about his institution’s new website. “Everything about this site is very clearly crafted to support the main contention that readers are supposed to conclude, which is that the [union] is a dangerous, outside, third-party presence.”

After much legal back and forth, the NLRB last week ruled 3-1 that graduate teaching, research and staff assistants at Columbia may vote to form a union affiliated with the United Auto Workers. Since then, Columbia, along with Harvard, Princeton and Yale Universities and the University of Chicago, have posted information online about the possible effects of unionization. Most point out that all union members must pay dues and are expected to participate in strikes, should they occur, and that unionization won’t necessarily improve their working conditions. Some contain concerns previously voiced to, and largely rejected by the NLRB — namely that unionization compromises the student experience in a number of ways.

“While reasonable people can come to different conclusions on this point, it is vital that we maintain the special and individual nature of students’ educational experiences and opportunities for intellectual and professional growth,” reads a letter from on the Chicago website from President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Daniel Diermeier. “A graduate student labor union could impede such opportunities and, as a result, be detrimental to students’ education and preparation for future careers. It could also compromise the ability of faculty to mentor and support students on an individualized basis.”

A Yale news story quotes President Peter Salovey as promising a  free and open debate on the union issue. But, he says, “The mentorship and training that Yale professors provide to graduate students is essential to educating the next generation of leading scholars. I have long been concerned that this relationship would become less productive and rewarding under a formal collective bargaining regime, in which professors would be ‘supervisors’ of their graduate student ‘employees.’” 

Columbia, Chicago, Harvard, Princeton and Yale all have Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) pages; several note they were partially adapted from Chicago’s. 

Here are some examples from Columbia’s:

Columbia has had a long-active campaign for a graduate assistants’ union affiliated with UAW, which also is organizing at Boston College, the union announced this week. Chicago's organizers are affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors. Other unions organizing graduate students on private campuses include the American Federation of Teachers and Service Employees International Union. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to accurately reflect Chicago's affiliation.)

UNITE-HERE has been working with graduate students at Yale for years; the union announced Monday that graduate assistants on that campus had petitioned the NLRB for a union election involving departmental-level or “micro-units.” 

Nothing New

Managerial information campaigns are nothing new, either within academe or without. A number of colleges and universities have launched them in response to recent adjunct union drives, for example. But universities -- no longer protected by a past NLRB ruling from a union vote -- are updating their arguments. And they've attracted some criticism from graduate students and others as being disingenuous. 

Fred Klonsky, a retired teacher, posted some of Chicago’s content to his popular blog about education matters. He left the job of editorializing to his readers. Comments were largely negative, including “Under the cover of lofty language, it is still Union Busting 101” and “Translation of UC statement: ‘We have been screwing over the grad students forever and we like it that way, we don’t want any changes.’” 

Jezebel, a popular feminist website, called Columbia’s website “slick” and essentially shallow.

“[T]he provost’s anti-unionization website does not contain very much specific information about why those concerns, or the potential drawbacks for student workers of being represented by UAW, beyond the usual issues of having to ‘pay dues’ and potentially being fined for not participating in a strike,” it said. 

Katz, of Columbia, said it was disappointing but not surprising that so many of anti-union administrators’ arguments presented before the NLRB were being rehashed on the internet. He noted similarities between today’s information campaigns and anti-graduate assistant unions fights of the past, including the mostly defunct set of “At What Cost?” websites. Supposedly maintained by graduate students, the sites date back to around the last time the NLRB considered — and ultimately decided against — these unions, in a 2004 case concerning Brown University. 

Both then and now, Katz said, such campaigns weren’t openly anti-union. But they seemed to center on questions about what “could” or “would” happen in worst-case scenarios, rather than on the large sample of graduate student union outcomes at public institutions, he said. Several of the new websites -- including Columbia's, above -- cite only the 2-percent dues paid by graduate student workers at New York University to UAW, for example. NYU university agreed to voluntarily recognize graduate assistants over two years ago in a case that was previously pending before the NLRB. 

Corey Robin, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, on his personal blog poked fun at the obvious similarities between some of the FAQ websites. 

"Unions, these universities have argued, would impose a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach on the ineffably individual and heterogenous nature of graduate education," he wrote after quoting some nearly identical language on different sites. "Casual readers might conclude that the only thing standardized and cookie-cutter about unions in elite universities is the argument against them. Or perhaps it’s just that great minds sometimes really do think alike."

Others disagree, saying it’s entirely appropriate for colleges and universities to share their positions on unionization with students, just as parent unions have done. After all, the websites contain no  threats or falsehoods.

Caroline Adelman, a spokesperson for Columbia, said its website was “moderate” and contained “important information.”

Joseph Ambash, managing partner with Fisher Phillips in Boston, successfully argued the Brown case before the board back in 2004. He said it was too soon to say whether any institution would challenge a graduate assistant union election, and that creating an informational website is hardly the first step in that direction. Rather, he said, matching union information with managerial information is “standard operating procedure.”

“I recommend that every institution do this — it’s perfectly appropriate that every institution that cares about this issue wants to inform students of accurate information in relation to unionizing,” he said. “This is nothing new.”

Neither is criticism of employers, Ambash added. “Any time an employer shares information or explains the possible downsides of unionization, [unions] accuse the employer of being anti-union, but nothing is further from the truth. Employers should share accurate information so that voters can make an informed choice."

Katz said it’s up to graduate students to debate among themselves the pros and cons of a union now. He said organizers and community leaders have asked Columbia going back two years to remain neutral, as NYU pledged to do after the voluntary recognition. Putting up this kind of website isn’t neutral, he said.

Not all universities with graduate student union movement have responded to the NLRB decision this way. Brown — the subject of the 2004 case against unions — did put up a FAQ-type web page this summer about graduate student unions and formally opposed the notion that students are employees. But in a recent email to faculty, students and staff, President Christina Paxson and other administrators said that while the university is dedicated to a balanced debate, it “will comply with the NLRB's recent decision and support discussions among graduate students as they explore whether or not unionization is right for them.”


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