Election 2004

Back to School Blues

A recent National Labor Relations Board decision has turned graduate students' "work" into "education," killing their right to unionize.
As graduate students head back to school this fall, they will be faced with the usual onslaught of post-summer stresses: reading assignments, enormous textbook bills and financial aid payments. And to add to their troubles, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) reversed its previous decision and denied graduate teaching and research assistants at Brown University the right to form unions and collectively bargain over the terms and conditions of their work. In this precedent-setting ruling, with implications for graduate assistants across the country, the George W. Bush-appointed majority of the Board argued that graduate assistants are not employees because their relationship with the University is more academic than economic. So you have no rights as workers – but welcome back to school!

As former graduate teaching and research assistants, the Brown University decision hits us at a personal level. As teaching assistants, we prepared syllabi, lectured classes, led seminar discussions, graded papers, and advised and mentored students – often more than their own professors. As research assistants, we performed vital research and wrote articles for publication, while our professors received most, if not all of the credit. At the University of Pennsylvania, where graduate assistants' efforts to form a union will likely be affected by this decision, teaching assistants provide over 70 percent of the instructional hours in large introductory lecture and laboratory courses. Given their impact on the student experience at Brown, graduate assistants devised the slogan: "Our working conditions are your learning conditions."

The NLRB's assertion that the efforts of graduate assistants primarily serve academic purposes fails to recognize the major economic contributions made by teaching and research assistants. The universities were happy to reap the benefits from our cheap skilled labor. We acknowledge the skills and opportunities gained from our teaching and research assistant positions, but we would hope for the same enrichment from any job. These assistantships were not required for fulfillment of our degrees, but were job offers we voluntarily accepted to pay the bills.

The NLRB's choice to turn its back on graduate assistants is the latest in a series of recent decisions issued that leave workers more vulnerable to exploitation on the job and less able to collectively improve their work environments by forming unions. Even when the NLRB recognizes workers as eligible for the protections guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act, each year 20,000 hard working men and women endure intimidation, harassment and termination by their employer simply for attempting to form a union. Fear of reprisal often prevents workers from speaking out against inadequate compensation, unfair treatment, and unsafe working conditions.

Without the protection of the National Labor Relations Act, the law will no longer safeguard graduate assistants from reprisal for their organizing efforts or force universities to bargain with them. Without the right to stand together to negotiate with universities over the terms of their work, graduate assistants – like many other workers who face barriers when they attempt to form unions – will face an uphill battle in their attempts to improve benefits or win living wages for their skilled labor.

All of us who have jobs – not just graduate assistants – should be concerned by the Brown University decision and others issued recently by the NLRB, which undermine the promise of labor law to protect workers' rights. At a time when health premiums are rising, wages are failing to keep up with inflation, and job security is undermined by threats of offshoring, the last thing American workers need is a weakened ability to improve working conditions.

With this ruling, the NLRB has earned a failing grade in its efforts to protect the ability of workers to achieve democratic rights on the job. Graduate assistants – like all working Americans – should have the freedom to join together – with the full backing of the law – to improve their workplace and the valuable products of their labor.
Research Director Julie Martinez Ortega and Research Associate Erin Johansson are out of graduate school and are now bonafide employees at American Rights at Work, a workers’ rights advocacy organization based in Washington, DC.
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