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Change in Strategy for Movement Toward Graduate Student Unions

In 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate students who teach and assist in research at Columbia University were employees. As employees, they were entitled to organize and collectively bargain for their rights. With that decision came many more petitions from graduate students at other schools for the same rights. 

In 2018, the NLRB looks different than it did in 2016. More conservative board members have been appointed by President Trump. Thus, the Service Employees International Union, the United Auto Workers, the American Federation of Teachers, and UNITE HERE have banded together to take the organizing of graduate students outside of the NLRB process. Each of the above-mentioned unions have expressed an intent to donate money, political connections and membership to support organizing at private universities.

Representation petitions at Boston College, the University of Chicago, and Yale University have been withdrawn as part of the nationally coordinated effort, even though graduate students had voted to join the union. Each school intended to oppose the results, which would have caused the parties to go before the NLRB. Rather than face a reversal of the law favoring them, the unions are seeking the schools’ cooperation by directly negotiating with the graduate students with the help of third parties. While a few schools have voluntarily recognized graduate student unions, the schools listed above have already publicly stated that they see graduate students as just that and not workers.