Graduate students at Duke, other private universities win right to unionize

A ruling Tuesday by the National Labor Relations Board opens the door for unionization efforts by graduate students who teach and do research at private universities.

In a 3-1 decision, the board said that graduate teaching and research assistants at Columbia University are covered by the National Labor Relations Act and therefore entitled to collective bargaining.

At issue in the Columbia case was whether graduate students, who are also paid for teaching and research, should be considered students or employees. Tuesday’s action means that graduate students are likely to begin organizing at private universities around the country.

Late Tuesday, a group of Duke University graduate students held a celebration near the Duke Chapel. Their aim is for a union vote at Duke in the spring.

“We’re really excited,” said Bennett Carpenter, a fourth-year teaching assistant in literature at Duke.

Carpenter said he’d been in contact with colleagues at Cornell, Yale, Columbia and other private universities about organizing. Duke has 2,500 Ph.D. students, Carpenter said. He said he hopes the majority will agree to file with the labor relations board for a union election next spring. If grad students vote to join a union, Duke would have to recognize it.

Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, issued a statement pointing out the distinction between students and employees.

“The NLRB decision doesn’t recognize the fact that students who engage in research and teaching as part of their programs of study are very different than employees,” Schoenfeld said. “They are vital members of the academic community with quite different relationships to their professors than an employee has to a supervisor. Duke has made significant investments in stipends, insurance and other benefits to enhance their educational experience, not for the purpose of hiring or retaining them as employees.”

Graduate students at Duke watched in March as adjunct faculty at Duke voted by a large majority to unionize. A group called Duke Teaching First led the push to join the Service Employees International Union in hopes of better pay, benefits and job security. The Duke vote was the first in decades at a private university in the South, a region that generally has weak unions.

Carpenter said the faculty effort prompted graduate students to say, “Hey, if they can do that, then maybe we can, too.”

For a long time, graduate students have taken a stand on pay or lack of dental care coverage, Carpenter said, but there are also issues of workplace safety, discrimination and harassment.

“At the end of the day, for me it also just feels fundamentally about respect, about being able to have a position at the table and a voice in determining our work conditions,” he said. “Just recognizing the value that we contribute to Duke’s educational and research mission.”

The NLRB case stemmed from a 2014 petition filed by the Graduate Workers of Columbia University – GWC-UAW Local 2110 – and reversed a previous ruling that denied collective bargaining to graduate students at Brown University. In overturning the Brown decision, the board said the case “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act without a convincing justification.”

The American Federation of Teachers applauded the decision. In a statement, the union’s president, Randi Weingarten said: “The truth is graduate workers are the glue that holds higher education institutions together – without their labor, classes wouldn’t get taught, exams wouldn’t get graded and office hours wouldn’t be held.”

Others called the NLRB decision a partisan move that would have negative consequences for universities and the students they serve.

U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican, issued a joint statement with Rep. Phil Roe, a Tennessee Republican, saying the labor board was advancing a culture of “union favoritism at any cost.”

“Teaching and research programs for graduate students are important learning opportunities that help individuals gain knowledge and skills to succeed in the future,” Foxx and Roe said. “Not only will today’s decision limit these programs, but it will increase college costs and impose new obstacles on hardworking men and women trying to build their careers.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill