Across the country, organizations of academic workers continue to explore their best strategies in negotiating with antagonistic administrations.
The cat-and-mouse game between labor and college management has been further complicated by the political recharacterization of the National Labor Relations Board (NRLB) since the transition to the Trump administration.
In 2016, late in the Obama administration, in response to a petition from graduate students at Columbia University, the NLRB ruled that research and teaching assistants have the right to collective bargaining in accordance with the National Labor Relations Act. (Public schools, which have broader and more established unions, operate according to state labor laws).
That decision by the Obama-era NLRB spurred labor-organizing activity at several other private universities, including Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Duke, and the University of Chicago, among others.
However, last September, Republicans attained a majority on the five-member NLRB, leading many to expect the board would return to its pre-2016 position against recognizing student unions. As a result, the recent pro-union momentum at some private campuses has halted.
For example, two unions withdrew their petitions to the NRLB to represent graduate students at the University of Chicago, apparently in order to avoid creating an opportunity for the NRLB to reverse its 2016 ruling and set a new, anti-labor precedent. Pro-union groups at Yale, Boston College, and the University of Pennsylvania have similary canceled their formal processes to organize.
School administrations, meanwhile, generally oppose collective bargaining rights for student workers. Their arguments include assertions that the student-school relationship is different from employee-employer, as well as claims that faith-based institutions are outside of the NLRB’s jurisdiction.
Thus, an uneasy stalemate exists at many campuses as collective bargaining remains at bay. In the meantime, academic workers will negotiate from a position of weakness, perhaps with a goal of establishing “voluntary recognition” relationships with administrations.
How will this play out over the long term? We predict growing tension between academic workers and administrations, even as administrations overtly express their sympathy towards their important graduate student colleagues.
It also won’t surprise us if graduate student organizations seek ways to create de facto strikes without the benefit of formal union protection.
And for one additional glimpse into the future, it’s helpful to look at the present situation in the UK. There, as the Guardian reports, lecturers from 61 universities recently began a multi-week strike related to pension issues. In addition to the general campus chaos which such an action creates, we noted one particular problem: undergraduate students have now started their own protests to complain about schools’ failure to deliver education during the strike period. One 18 year-old student told the Guardian, “We pay a large amount for our tuition fees and we expect the university in return to provide us with the appropriate education and to pay the staff effectively enough to give us an education. They want students to pay but don’t want to give us consumer rights.”
If we were college administrators, we would not just be worrying about negotiating compensation and benefit issues with academic workers. We would be very worried about what the undergraduates might do if their graduate student instructors ever stop teaching.