Brown University and its would-be graduate student union on Thursday announced their agreement on terms for a possible union election, outside of National Labor Relations Board channels. The board decided in 2016 that graduate students on private campuses have the right to form unions. But students at several institutions have since withdrawn their petitions from the board over concerns that a Trump-appointed body might reverse that earlier decision. Some university administrations have openly opposed unionization efforts, saying that graduate students are students, not employees. Richard M. Locke, Brown’s provost, said in a statement that while the university’s principal “relationship with our graduate students is as students,” it also recognizes and values “the work they do as teaching and/or research assistants.”
The new agreement outlines election procedures, voter eligibility and a dispute-resolution process for any election. The American Federation of Teachers-affiliated union needs support from at least 30 percent of members of the proposed union before filing a petition for an election. The union has said that a majority of its 1,400 possible members support unionization and that an election could be held as soon as the fall. “Graduate students are valued members of our community and central to the university’s mission,” Locke said. “We fully support their right to decide for themselves whether unionization is in their best interest, and to working collaboratively to strengthen graduate education at Brown.”
Georgetown University and graduate student organizers reached a similar agreement in April. Lubabah Chowdhury, a third-year graduate assistant in English at Brown, said in a separate statement the new pre-election agreement “is a win not only for grad workers at Brown, but across the country. Grad workers at Brown have shown that student activism and organizing can and does effect real change. I am excited to vote for a union that will protect all graduate students from sexist and racist harassment and discrimination, and from exploitative working conditions, and will empower us to fight for urgent and necessary changes in higher education.” New York University entered into a private union agreement with its United Auto Workers-affiliated graduate student union in 2013.