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News from EPI Graduate student workers should be allowed to organize

In August 2016, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate student teaching and research assistants at private universities are employees and have the right to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act. Following that ruling, there has been growing momentum among graduate teaching and research assistants at many private universities to seek union representation. A new EPI report provides an overview of the landscape within which graduate student employees at private universities are seeking to unionize, and argues that their right to join together and bargain for better wages and working conditions should not be infringed.

“People working as teaching assistants or research assistants while pursuing a graduate degree have the same rights as other employees under our nation’s labor law. The universities opposing their efforts to unionize join the ranks of countless employers in this country that engage in aggressive anti-union campaigns,” said EPI Labor Counsel Celine McNicholas. “Like other working people, teaching and research assistants want to bargain collectively to ensure greater control over their pay and working conditions. Like other employers, Harvard, Yale, and other ivory tower institutions resist this effort because they are worried about having to pay fair wages—not protecting academic freedom.”

The authors point to graduate student worker unions at public universities, which have thrived for decades, as evidence that collective bargaining can improve the wages and working conditions of graduate student workers at private universities. Unionized graduate student employees at public universities have reported receiving higher pay as well as higher levels of personal and professional support than their non-union peers. Meanwhile, the vast majority of faculty at public universities where graduate student workers have collective bargaining agreements reported no negative effects of collective bargaining on faculty–student relationships or academic freedom.

“Private university administrations’ argument that graduate student unions would somehow impede collaboration in academia is belied by the fact that public universities have operated successfully with graduate student unions for nearly 50 years,” said EPI Associate Labor Council Marni von Wilpert. “More than 64,000 graduate student employees are already unionized at 28 public universities across the country. Graduate workers at private universities should be given the same union rights their public-sector colleagues enjoy.”

The last several decades have seen significant changes in labor conditions within academia. Universities have increasingly relied on graduate teaching assistants and contingent faculty, paying them far less than tenured professors. Graduate teaching and research assistants play an integral role in the internal economy of a university by helping to produce research and provide quality education. And yet the pay they receive rarely rises to the level of a living wage