Graduate student unionization
Graduate student employee unionization, or academic student employee unionization, refers to labor unions that represent students who are employed by their college or university to teach classes, conduct research and perform clerical duties. As of 2007 there are 28 graduate student employee local unions in the United States. and 21 local unions in Canada. Labor laws in the United States and Canada permit collective bargaining for only limited classes of student-employees. Many of these unions refer to their workers as Academic Student Employees (ASEs) to reflect the fact that their membership may also include undergraduate students working in represented job classifications. Many university administrators have vigorously opposed the unionization of graduate student employees on their campuses through legal challenges. Opposition by elite universities in the U.S. led to the loss of collective bargaining rights for graduate student employees in the private sector.
Academic student employees who may be either graduate or undergraduate students at public colleges and universities in the United States are covered by state collective bargaining laws, where these laws exist. The various state laws differ on which subgroups of academic student employees may bargain collectively, and a few state laws explicitly exclude them from bargaining. Some states have extended collective bargaining rights to graduate employees in response to unionization campaigns. They are excluded from Federal bargaining rights under the Taft-Harley Act's exclusion of state and local government employees.
Graduate student employees at private colleges and universities in the United States are covered by the National Labor Relations Act. The rulings of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have shifted in recent years. After years of rejecting graduate employee unionization, the NLRB ruled in 2000 that graduate employees at private universities were covered under the national labor law. In 2004, with newly appointed members, the Board reversed this decision, revoking the collective bargaining rights of graduate employees.
At the heart of the debate over graduate student employee unionization in the United States is the question of whether academic student employees are employees or students. The employer position, and that of the current NLRB, is that the work graduate employees do is so intertwined with their professional education that collective bargaining will harm the educational process. Supporters of unionization argue that graduate employees' work is primarily an economic relationship. They point especially to universities' use of Teaching Assistants as part of a wider trend away from full-time, tenured faculty.
For tax purposes, the Internal Revenue Service considers the compensation of graduate student employees to be wages. When graduate students receive payment for teaching, it is not taxed on a 1042-S form (for scholarships), but on a W-2 (which is the form for employment income). The income from teaching is taxed differently from scholarships, and treated like employment income.
Teaching assistants at Rutgers University and the City University of New York (CUNY) were the first to be included under a collective bargaining agreement. Rutgers and CUNY included graduate assistants with the faculty unionization contract.
The University of Wisconsin–Madison's Teaching Assistants Association was the first to be recognized as an independent employee bargaining unit in 1969 and was granted a contract in 1970. At the same time, graduate assistants at the University of Michigan organized a union, which later won a contract in 1975.
The next to unionize was the University of Oregon and three Florida universities: University of Florida, Florida A&M, and the University of South Florida. Florida was the first state to unionize where the union membership density in the state was below 15 percent.
Unionization at private universities, meanwhile, are governed under the National Labor Relations Act and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Several rulings were issued by the NLRB during the 1970s which prohibited graduate students from unionizing. The board ruled that graduate assistants were not employees since their relationship is primarily for learning purposes.
Between 1981 and 1991, few universities recognized a graduate union—the quietest period of unionization. University of Massachusetts, Amherst was an exception. There, 2,500 graduate assistants won recognition in November 1990 and a contract the following year that covered teaching, research and project assistants, and assistant residence directors. Teaching assistants at the University at Buffalo began a union campaign in 1975, but withdrew their petition to the State of New York Public Employee Relations Board (PERB). Other campuses from the State of New York University System, such as Albany, Binghamton, and Stony Brook, revived the union petition in 1984. Similarly, teaching assistants at the University of California at Berkeley started a union campaign in 1983. Eventually in 1993, exam readers and tutors, but not graduate assistants, were given collective bargaining rights at Berkeley. Full collective bargaining status to all teaching assistants was not given until 1999.
In 1991, the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee won recognition for a graduate-student union. Shortly thereafter, the University of Albany, Buffalo, Binghamton, and Stony Brook won recognition when the State of New York PERB ruled teaching assistants were employees and were granted collective bargaining rights.
Several other universities also won recognition in the 1990s. In 1995, the University of Kansas signed their first union contract. Teaching and research assistants at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and the University of Iowa approved a union contract in 1996. Wayne State University also negotiated a contract with teaching assistants in 1999.
Several notable unionization efforts arose at private universities. Prior rulings by the NLRB did not permit graduate students to unionize at private universities, but did not prohibit universities from recognizing the unions. Teaching assistant unions formed at Yale and New York University. To gain bargaining status, the unions went on several strikes. In 1996, for instance, teaching assistants at Yale refused to calculate and submit fall semester grades. The administration still refused to recognize the union and the strike eventually ended. A suit was filed by the NLRB on behalf of the striking Yale students claiming Yale's administration violated unfair-labor-practice law; however, a judge later dismissed the suit.
Besides SUNY, the University of California system was the second university system to unionize. In 1999, the California PERB ruled teaching assistants were allowed to collectively bargain with the University of California. Union elections were held at the University of California's Berkeley, Davis, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Riverside, and Irvine campuses—all of them approving a teaching assistant union. In 2000, union negotiations for all of the campuses were combined into UAW Local 2865, who bargains on behalf of all the campuses. Teaching assistants at the University of California, Merced also joined the union when the campus opened in 2006.
Also in 2000, the National Labor Relations Board reversed their previous rulings on unionization at private universities and permitted graduate assistants at New York University (NYU) to unionize. Later that year, graduate assistants at NYU signed their first and only contract. In 2004, the NLRB again reversed itself and prohibited Brown University and other private universities from unionizing. Since the ruling, NYU has refused to renew its contract with graduate assistants.
Since 2000, twenty campuses have unionized. In 2001, the University of Massachusetts Boston signed their first contract with teaching and research assistants while Oregon State University won a contract—the second to receive a contract in Oregon. In 2002, Michigan State University and Temple University unionized. Despite a state law explicitly denying graduate assistants from unionizing, the Washington PERB ruled graduate assistants at the University of Washington could unionize. The University of Rhode Island also unionized that year.
A ruling by the Illinois Court of Appeals permitted the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2002), University of Illinois at Chicago (2004), and University of Illinois at Springfield (2006) and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (2006) to unionize. The large California State University system, the third university system, unionized in 2006. Also in 2006, Western Michigan University teaching assistants unionized—the fourth Michigan university to do so. Central Michigan University graduate assistants are developed a union and signed their first contract in 2010.
In April 2010, more than 1,000 NYU graduate assistants again filed an election petition with the NLRB. NLRB Acting Regional 2 Director Elbert F. Tellem denied the petition, deferring to the NLRB's 2004 decision in Brown University. But in language highly critical of Brown, Tellem observed that "The instant record clearly shows that these graduate assistants are performing services under the control and direction of" New York University "for which they are compensated. It is also clear on the record that these services remain an integral component of graduate education." Tellem criticized Brown University for being "premised on a university setting as it existed 30 years ago", and said that "The graduates have a dual relationship with the employer which does not necessarily preclude a finding of employee status." The New York Times said the Region 2 decision "lays the groundwork to overturn the 2004 ruling," and other media outlets agreed.
- Graduate Employees and Students Organization, Yale University
- National Labor Relations Board
- Graduate Employees Together - University of Pennsylvania
- At What Cost?, Cornell
- Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions
- Graduate Employees and Students Organization
- GSOC at NYU
- GSU at CMU
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- Graduates Against Student Organization
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- At What Cost, Cornell
- At What Cost, Brown
- GEO-UAW at UMass Amherst
- At What Cost, Minnesota
- Graduate Students United, University of Chicago
- Teaching Assistants Union, Western Michigan University
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