The NLRB Got It Right

Recognizing graduate students as employees is good for the whole university, argues Mary Grace B. Hébert.

August 30, 2016
Graduate Workers of Columbia University

After months of deliberation, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled that graduate research and teaching assistants at private universities can form unions, overturning a 2004 decision. Graduate employee unions and graduate students have hailed the ruling -- a response to a petition by graduate employees at Columbia University seeking to form a union -- as a victory for graduate student rights. The decision to allow graduate employees at private universities to unionize has potential to alter the lives of thousands of graduate employees around the United States.

Graduate employees at Columbia will still need to hold an official vote to form a union, but this is a step in the right direction. Of course, administrations of both public and private universities remain critical of the effect that unions will have on institutions of higher learning. However, those criticisms largely reflect the questionable views that there is a special “student-teacher relationship” and that scholarship is more important than compensation.

For the past four years, I have attended the University of Illinois in Urbana as a graduate student. To date, the majority of graduate employee unions have been formed at public universities because, in contrast to private universities, public universities are governed by state labor boards and state labor laws. The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois represents nearly 3,000 graduate employees working as teaching and graduate assistants across campus.

What I’ve learned in my time at the university is that a graduate union is not the end of the struggle for grad rights. The experiences of graduate employees at the University of Illinois and other protected institutions demonstrate the overwhelming pressures on those employees to sacrifice their health and well-being to a centuries-old model of education.

In their amicus brief for the NLRB case, The American Council on Education (ACE) criticizes graduate students for wanting to be recognized as employees; they state, “[The] Petitioner’s unabashed purpose is to extend its reach by intruding collective bargaining as broadly as possible into academic matters at the expense of the student-teacher relationship (emphasis added).” ACE assumes that the student-teacher relationship is always beneficial to graduate student education, but the reality is that it can be exploitative. The system as it operates now means poverty and hardship for many graduate employees. Graduate students are increasingly in debt, depressed, and overworked.

In addition, by focusing on the student-teacher relationship, ACE obscures the panoply of relationships that affect graduate employee well-being on university campuses, such as corporate partners, budgetary officers and the board of trustees.

When I served as the grievance officer for the GEO during the 2015-2016 school year, I often saw overworked graduate employees. Even with the protection of a union, graduate employees frequently came to me as someone who would listen to them, but they did not want to report problems to their departments. The student-teacher relationship is one kind of relationship that exists within a complicated web of departmental and university politics. Academic disciplines are microcosms; graduate students often fear being informally black-listed if they speak up about any issues they have with the system, even when their complaints are about violations of the contract, such as overwork and religious discrimination.

ACE is arguing for an outdated image of the university that perpetuates a system in which graduate employees should be grateful for working at all, even if they are overworked, underpaid and lack benefits. In its response to the ruling, Columbia similarly emphasized the primacy of the student-teacher relations. The administration stated that it did not support the involvement of a “nonacademic third party in this scholarly training,” However, the reality is that concerns of other parties often impact university decisions; universities are businesses enterprises, not scholarly silos. Despite the assertion that the student-teacher relationship is at the heart from graduate employee labor, a variety of other parties directly and indirectly affect the availability of appointments, compensation and other benefits. At the University of Illinois, departments are given funding by the college and then determine how to spend that funding; however, other universities may use a more top-down managerial style. In either situation, those people allocating budgets play a crucial role in determining what departments can offer graduate employees.

Although opposition to graduate employee unions is couched in language about the “student-teacher relationship” or scholarly pursuits, university administrators have shown that the conflict is often over money. For institutions across the United States, budgets are tight. For example, the University of Illinois claims to be in a budget crisis, but with a $3.3 billion dollar endowment, there is room for changes to budget priorities. In the past, when the university has been in a financial “crisis,” often of its own making, it has attempted to balance the budget on the backs of graduate employees, despite the fact that graduate employee compensation makes up a miniscule percent of the university’s budget. Similarly, the University of Missouri revoked health insurance coverage for graduate employees because of budget concerns in August 2015. That sparked outrage and ultimately resulted in a vote by graduate employees there to form a union.

Faced with mounting budgetary pressures, some universities have looked to requiring graduate employees pay tuition. At the University of Illinois, graduate employees covered by the GEO receive tuition waivers; that means that their tuition will be waived up to a certain amount, although graduate employees will still have to pay some fees. That right was hard-won after a strike in 2009. However, in 2010, despite their agreement with the GEO, the university attempted to revoke tuition waivers for some graduate employees in the College of Fine and Applied Arts through a change in policy. The GEO challenged that policy change through a grievance and won arbitration in 2011. The university had to repay students in Fine and Applied Arts for tuition paid under that policy.

In January 2016, GEO won another victory in arbitration. In that case, some programs were asking departments that hired their graduate students to pay those employees’ tuition rather than those employees earning a tuition waiver. The arbitrator ruled that asking departments to pay a graduate employee’s tuition effectively kept many qualified graduate students from getting employment. Students affected by these policy changes were struggling to pay bills and to concentrate on teaching and research due to stress. Even in that situation, students were hesitant to come forward, fearing isolation or pushback from their departments.

Graduate employees are in the precarious position of being both students and employees. We face the challenge of navigating departmental and campus politics, while trying to teach, research and publish. The student-teacher relationship allows for exploitation on the basis of future employment, meaning graduate employees must sacrifice their health and well-being for the chance of a good future, an increasingly slim chance.

It is in the interest of everyone in the university system to treat graduate employees as employees. High quality recruits will be more likely to apply a place with more protections. The job security offered by a union contract will also raise the quality of graduate and undergraduate education and research. In addition, unions can foster interdisciplinarity among graduate employees, creating networks that can foster research projects, educational innovation and emotional support. Graduate employees work hard to keep university campuses running; we deserve respect for the work that we do. 


Mary Grace B. Hébert is a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Urbana.


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