Contributor Tweets
Other Tweets
Search Site

Information on this site is for educational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. If you have a legal problem, consult your institutional counsel or an attorney licensed to practice law in your state. Information and views presented in this blog are solely those of the individual contributors and not their employers.

Subscribe to blog's feed

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

« Higher Education’s Hidden Cost: Sexual Violence across College Campuses | Main | Power of the Paws: The Role of Animals on Campus & Legal Issues »

Students First: Graduate Students and Unionization (Or Not)

The unionization of students has recently become a hot topic in higher education.  In particular, graduate students serving as teaching and research assistants have made large coordinated efforts in recent decades to receive collective bargaining rights.  Some have been successful, others less successful.  These efforts have looked differently at private and public institutions and have been shaped by history.  

The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, or better known as the Labor Management Relations Act, gave the states jurisdiction over state and local employees’ collective bargaining, thus excluding student employees from federal collective bargaining rights.  While the federal government did not protect graduate students, multiple states created their own collective bargaining laws.  As a result, there are currently more than 20 graduate employee unions at public American universities.  Many states, however, provide no protection for collective bargaining among their student employees.  Why is this, you ask? For most of the last 70 years, graduate students at public universities have not been seen as employees.  They were viewed solely as students, and their work for the university was considered part of their education.  

In theory this might make some sense.  But over time, graduate students became utilized as teaching and research assistants more heavily.  As a result, their workloads increased.  Meanwhile, as higher education costs remained high, students had less time for additional jobs, which provided supplemental income.  Graduate students, many of whom had families to support and student debt to pay off had less time to earn outside income.  These students were left without a voice in the matter and saw unionization as the next logical step.  But of course this was not an option in many states. 

While students at public universities have consistently found themselves at the mercy of their states’ governments, students at private schools have had quite a different experience.  In 1951, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a panel of Presidentially-appointed members that hears cases concerning labor, ruled that the educational focus of graduate work denied students coverage under the National Labor Relations Act.  This ruling was reversed in 1970 in Cornell University v. NLRB.  The Board stated that, the lines between business and education were beginning to blur, and it would be most beneficial for the NLRB to gain jurisdiction over private educational institutions.  Over time the NLRB’s decisions on whether students were considered employees or not hinged on two criteria: (1) whether the “primary purpose” of the work was educational or economical, and (2) whether they are compensated for services in a way which closely resembles employment.  In Adelphi University (1972), the NLRB utilized this “primary purpose” criterion to rule that graduate students should be classified differently than faculty.  In Leland Stanford (1974), the NLRB stated that graduate students’ work was primarily educational.  The ruling also stated that the stipends graduate students received were not given to compensate for work done but were merely efforts to financially support students.  This precedence was used for the next twenty-five years.

In 2000, the NLRB made a landmark ruling in favor of graduate students at New York University (NYU), stating that they were indeed statutory employees.  It was determined that the students were providing services and receiving compensation in a way which resembled an employer-employee relationship. The NLRB also granted graduate students collective bargaining with this ruling.  Unfortunately, this precedence did not last.  In 2004, a newer NLRB reviewed the earlier ruling in Brown University II.  This NLRB reversed the NYU ruling by returning to the “primary purpose” doctrine.  It is worth noting that the vote was 3-2 with the minority in strong opposition to the majority position.  Finally, in Columbia University (2016), the NLRB reversed its position once again and allowed for students at private institutions to unionize.  

It seems that regardless of whether students should be considered employees or not, keeping them from unionizing prevents them from adequately supporting themselves and their families.  Working or “studying” conditions are not what they should be and allowing them to bargain collectively would be the best way to take the student-first approach many universities claim to take.   Students need a voice, whether that is granted by the federal government or the individual states.  At this point it is difficult to say for sure what will come next.  While private universities’ graduate students now have the opportunity to unionize, it seems unlikely that students at public institutions will be granted the same rights on a federal level.  While that seems like a certainty, the ever-changing nature of the NLRB creates an element of uncertainty for future graduate students at private universities.

This post was co-authored by Mr. Isaac Hale and Dr. David Nguyen. Mr. Hale is a Hall Director at the University of North Dakota and a masters student in the UND Higher Education program.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (9)

Graduate student employees to me are often like faculty in a research associate or lecturer roll. They also have some benefits that regular student employees do not, such as being paid over winter break, as faculty are; tuition waivers; additional educational and professional development opportunities; and in some states, the coverage of insurance premiums was an option (before the Affordable Care Act mandated against that). On our campus, their pay is equivalent to an entry level professional position for the most part, as well. I'm curious what their collective bargaining process might look like. Are they bargaining for better conditions, more consideration, higher salaries? Very interesting topic Isaac. Good Job!

April 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTina Monette

Interesting topic as we start to see the landscape of higher education turn to adjunct lecturers and graduate students in an effort to save money. You make a good point about the benefits of
a union for graduate students in negotiating wages/stipends, working hours, health insurance, travel, leaves of absence, and job postings. However it would be interesting to know if there are any adverse effects of unionizing. What are the consequences for a graduate student when an outside party is making decisions related to graduate assistantships and faculty and the university no longer have input

April 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHeather Helgeson

Great topic, Isaac. With the recent changes to the Affordable Care Act, the topic of graduate student benefits and stipends has been at the forefront of discussion at the University of North Dakota. As you stated, many of these students have families to support on very small stipends. We want to retain our best students which means we need to support them from an educational and financial standpoint.

April 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNaomi Hansen

You chose to write about a very important and relevant topic. Graduate students seem to be the most overlooked and forgotten employees of many universities, whether the institutions are public or private. It is becoming more and more difficult for those who want to obtain a master's or doctoral degree to obtain these higher-level degrees because it is hard to support themselves and their families (if they have one). Speaking from my own personal experience, I had to weigh the pros and cons of the offers I received from the schools where I was accepted, which was obviously very hard to do. Higher education institutions need to be more flexible in what they can offer graduate students as far as benefits are concerned, but the biggest hurdle in accomplishing that is for schools to receive more funding (which does not look too likely at this point in time).

April 30, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTara Lulla

As someone who as been a graduate assistant, I appreciate that many times the populations willingness to work is taken advantage of. However, as a future student affairs professional, I wonder how the landscape of colleges and universities will change if graduate assistants unionize. With the budget concerns in North Dakota, I worry if student services will continue to be sacrificed, as it is often graduate assistants providing those services. Another topic related to this could be the potential for Resident Advisors to unionize.

May 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAbbey Lane

I think this is an awesome topic. I completely agree with the reasonings behind graduate students pushing for collective bargaining. The workloads of graduate assistants have significantly and consistently been increasing and leaving no time for these student employees to make time for bringing in additional income or even for staying on top of their own coursework. Nice writing!

May 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterShannon Sniegolski

Isaac, this was a really interesting blog post. Graduate students unionizing isn't something that I had thought about before, but the arguments in your post make a lot of sense. I'm really interested to see where this is going to go in the future. Will students continue to try to unionize? And what would that mean for institutions if they did? I wonder if the availability of graduate assistantships would be impacted by this?

May 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay Stack

Creating unions for graduate students seems like a great idea on paper, but what happens when schools just stop accepting so many graduate students to save on costs. This could be a great idea for increasing competition and incentive to work on research, but it also could thin the pool of applicants actually receiving an education. Navigating the way for graduate students to both be students and employees will be a harsh reality for some, but is definitely needed if these students want to make a living wage from their education ventures.

May 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Benike

I love this topic! What I like is that it is student focused and it is a question of how can students be protected. I think we will see an increase in student unions given the climate of higher education.Graduate students contribute a lot to the university, departments, and faculty and that alone should be reasons to accommodate them to a degree employee benefits. Even more, their intellectual property.

May 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRoy Roach III

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Textile formatting is allowed.