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Grad Student’s Hopes for Unions Are Threatened by the Trump Administration

18 months ago, graduate teaching assistants at private institutions had optimistic expectations due to their right to collective bargaining guaranteed by a federal labor board. However, after the election of Donald Trump, some universities are making another attempt to cut off the blooming unionization tendency.

On Thursday, Columbia University emailed on its decision to not bargain with the graduates. Union representation was supported by students in the proportion of 2 to 1. The university is going to appeal to a federal court instead. Boston College and Yale also decided to file legal appeals instead of starting negotiations with students.

Such decisions may mean that institutions hope that the reconstructed National Labor Relations Board that now consists of pro-business Republicans, will state that students are not considered employees, thus repealing the decision made two years before.

Harry Katz, a professor of collective bargaining at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, noted that such a strategy is quite likely to be implemented, given the number of Trump supporters in this board.

Throughout a few decades, research and teaching assistants at public universities were represented by unions. Meantime, the only private university that considered a collective bargaining agreement with graduates, is New York University.

According to data of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, graduate teaching assistants were paid $35,810 in 2016. Despite this fact, the majority of institutions argued that treating them like workers may affect the tutoring relationships between professors and students, inspecting their research and academic goals.

The position of NLRB on a students’ right to create unions have shifted during a few years. In 2004, during the George W. Bush’s presidency, the board declared that graduate student instructors are not workers. In 2016, this position was reversed due to the democratic policy of President Barack Obama.

Now NLRB, which must consist of five members, includes only four of them. Every one of members is leaning in favor of either Obama’s or Trump’s policy. John Ring, who is a labor lawyer, was nominated by Trump as the fifth member, and now he must be confirmed by the Senate.

Chaz Lee, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, recalls a pro-union vote as a cheering moment for all students. He, just like many others, had hoped that unions will increase wages and insurance coverage. High education costs push many graduate students to struggle. Many of them are in debt and cannot afford to live near their institutions. He notes that there are raises in some departments, but no contract guarantees that such compensations will maintain on the level that covers expenses.

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Universities asked the NLRB to change its mind after the unionization vote in 2016, and define graduate students as just students, not employees. David Nirenberg, the Executive Vice Provost of the University of Chicago, stated that such concerns are explained by the possible negative effects of unionization on the ability of universities to provide students with a necessary support and help in developing teaching and research.

The same concern was expressed by administrators of Columbia University after teaching assistants decided to join the United Auto Workers. On Tuesday, Josh Coatsworth, the Columbia University Provost, emailed the community of the university, addressing this issue in the context of relationships between the faculty and students, which on his opinion, shouldn’t be reduced to those between an employer and employee.

UAW regional head Julie Kushner stated that the union is looking towards the mobilization of the part of the community that doesn’t support Columbia’s decision. She noted that the community didn’t expect such a resolution from serious institutions and compared it to the Walmart policy.

Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, has a good experience in working with grads at the University of Chicago. He accused institution administrators in attempts to hold up the unionization movement. On his opinion, they just simply rely on the number of Trump supporters in the board.

Some universities have yet to say whether they are going to bargain or not, though challenging the results of elections by filing appeals. Boston College stated that it’s a Roman Catholic university, so they don’t follow the rulings of the NLRB. Such universities as Brandeis and Tufts in the Boston area and American University in Washington D.C. agreed to start negotiations with students. According to Stephan Lefebvre, a graduate student and a member of the bargaining committee, says that negotiations are going well.

Grad students of Brandeis and Tufts are represented by Service Employees International Union Local 509. Its higher education coordinator Matt Dauphin stated that both campuses joined the negotiations last autumn. He hopes that the discussion will continue regardless of the NLRB’s decisions. He noted that these employers may keep on doing the right thing, even if the NLRB will reverse its own previous decisions.

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