NLRB to Rule on Graduate Students Right to Unionize
By Mary Ellen Flannery
To slow the progression of multiple scleroris in her body, Kristi Brownfield, a graduate student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC), needs to take $1,700 worth of medication each month. As a low-paid teaching assistant, she can’t afford it.
But there’s new hope for Brownfield— and it’s the contract between SIUC and GA United, the NEA-affiliated union that represents graduate students on that campus. Last year, thanks to the process of collective bargaining, graduate students won new and better access to healthcare.
“Nobody comes to graduate school for the health care plan,” Brownfield told administrators last year, “But maybe they should be able to.”
This is what collective bargaining can do for union members: provide them with a meaningful voice in their workplaces so that they can talk about the tools they need to do their jobs well. This includes adequate health care, of course, but it also includes things that directly affect quality of education, such as class sizes, curriculum, and academic freedom. As members of a union, all educators can help to identify and solve issues of learning.
Unfortunately, that positive voice, along with the right to belong to a union, often has been denied to graduate students, who are paid by universities to teach classes. The same rights also have been often denied to faculty and employees at private and religious institutions.
The good news is that may be changing, thanks to the legal advocacy of NEA and its allies and the common sense of President Obama’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Recently the NLRB announced it would review a 2004 ruling that took away the rights of graduate students to unionize. It also has said it will take a second look at a 1980 Supreme Court decision, which ruled against unionization of faculty at a private college because, the Court said those faculty were actually managerial employees. This review was prompted by unionization efforts at Point Park University, a private university in Pennsylvania.
On Wednesday, two Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives subcommittees jointly took up these issues, claiming that NLRB board members—and unions—are forcing their way into higher education. “The opposite is true,” testified Christian Sweeney, a deputy organizing director at AFL-CIO. “Higher ed employees are reaching out to unions. They want to address their very real concerns through the process of collective bargaining.”
And, in any case, asked U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ), doesn’t Congress have more important concerns, such as job creation? “The questions we face this morning (about NLRB and union rights) are significant,” he said, “but the course of agenda that the majority continues to pursue is not only diversionary but counter-productive…I get the distinct sense our constituents would rather us work together and find solutions to create job opportunities.”
In both cases under consideration by the NLRB, the one having to do with grad students at New York University and the other with faculty at Point Park, NEA has filed or signed on to legal briefs with NLRB that support the collective bargaining rights of all employees. In the latter case, NEA specifically points to the “historical reality” that “the landscape of higher education is changing rapidly.”
Maybe 30-plus years ago, when the case originally was decided, faculty had input and influence over significant administrative decisions, such as university budgets. But today, the brief asserts, “Faculty recommendations are not implemented in many areas important in Yeshiva [the previous case] — if, indeed, professional advice in these areas is sought from faculty at all.” Indeed, these days, most faculty members are part-time or contingent employees, with little say at all.
“The Board..has been given two clear, competing visions to choose from,” wrote NEA attorney Jason Walta in a recent column for the NEA Advocate. “One would virtually banish collective-bargaining in private institutions of higher ed, while the other would secure the promise of the National Labor Relations Act for a group of professionals who are just as deserving as anyone else to have their interests represented by a union.”
Kristi Brownfield, for one, knows the difference.