The recent NLRB ruling extends rights that graduate workers at public universities have had for many decades. At institutions like the University of California, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan, Temple University, and many others, grads are already organized in unions, which are protected by state laws. In fact, more than 64,000 graduate student workers are organized and secure in their right to negotiate the terms of their work.
Graduate workers at private universities once had the same protections as those at public universities. This changed in 2004, when a George W. Bush-appointed NLRB ruled to exclude graduate workers from definitions of “employee” in federal labor law. Since the 2004 decision, some grad workers have sought voluntary union recognition from their universities, which allows graduate students to hold elections for union representation without petitioning the NLRB. At NYU, there was such strong union support among graduate workers that the administration agreed to voluntarily recognize their union. NYU grads have since won important gains through their contract – pay increases, workload protections, dental insurance, better medical coverage for individuals and family members, and a generous childcare fund, among other victories.
The NLRB decision to restore collective bargaining rights at private institutions has re-energized graduate organizing across the country. In a recent election at Columbia University, grad workers voted with an overwhelming majority to form a union. Grads have also organized themselves at Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Brown, Yale, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern, among others.