WASHINGTON -- A U.S. House of Representatives panel on Wednesday attempted to deal with a question that will be key for rulings on labor issues in higher education in the coming months: Are graduate students at private universities primarily employees or students? And should they be allowed to unionize?
The discussion divided, perhaps predictably, along party lines, at a joint hearing of two subcommittees on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Wednesday morning. Republicans, and college administrators called as witnesses, argued that graduate students should be grateful for their teaching duties as part of their education. Democrats, and the sole labor representative, argued that graduate students should have the right to unionize and collectively bargain.
The National Labor Relations Board this summer received arguments  on whether graduate students at New York University should be allowed to form unions, possibly reconsidering a 2004 decision in which the board ruled that graduate students at Brown University, and by extension those at other private universities, could not organize. Rulings on graduate student unions have flipped alongside presidential administrations, with the right to unionize granted to students when Democrats controlled the White House (and appointments to the board) and denied when Republicans were in charge. (Union rights for graduate students at public universities are determined by states, and are not affected by the NLRB review.)
The most recent cases are part of a flurry of activity on the board surrounding unionization in higher education: the board has also requested briefs  in a case on whether faculty at private colleges should be allowed to unionize, and the board’s regional offices have issued opinions  on whether adjunct faculty at two Roman Catholic colleges, Manhattan College  and St. Xavier University , could organize.
Those cases, Republicans on the committee said, represent an attempt by the board to “change something that isn’t broken” and could infringe on academic freedom and drive up the cost of college. Democrats argued that graduate student unionization at public universities has had no effect on tuition prices or academic freedom and that the hearing, while interesting, focused on an issue that shouldn’t be a top priority for Congress. The NLRB during the Obama administration has been a frequent target of Congressional Republicans, although most of their anger has focused on actions related to businesses, not colleges.
Peter Weber, a chemistry professor and the dean of the graduate school at Brown University, said that graduate students’ employment -- such as teaching or research assistantships -- is part of their learning experience, and that those students shouldn’t be seen as university employees.
“We could engage fully trained adjunct faculty to fulfill Brown’s teaching needs, if our goals were merely to purchase instructional services,” and it would be cheaper than hiring graduate students, Weber said. “That’s not our goal.”
The sharpest exchange of the hearing was between Weber and Representative George Miller, a California Democrat, who pressed Weber on what stopped the university from doubling graduate students’ hours or increasing their responsibilities. Those decisions are made by a governing body that includes graduate students as representatives, Weber answered.
“So all the reasonable people sit on that side of the table?” Miller responded sarcastically. “You’re dealing with people who are grad students and postdocs, and [suggesting] they’d go crazy if they had a union, but you’d never go crazy if you have all of the power?”
Weber repeated that graduate students are represented in academic decisions, and said that he feared unionization would make relationships between students and professors “adversarial.”
Walter C. Hunter, co-chair of the higher education practice group at Littler Mendelson, a labor law firm, said that higher education cases have a unique dynamic in part because academe is generally supportive of collective bargaining rights -- whether or not they believe those rights should apply on their campuses.
“They may disagree,” Hunter said. “But they do so with a profound sense of appreciation for the labor movement and the collective bargaining process, when appropriate.”