union organizing higher education

In August 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) ruled that graduate students and adjunct professors at private colleges and universities are employees and, therefore, can join unions. The NLRB is the federal agency that enforces the federal law that grants most private sector non-supervisory employees the right to form unions, as well as to engage in protected, concerted activities to improve their working conditions whether or not they are in a union. The impact of the NLRB’s controversial decision can be seen at colleges and universities throughout the country, including some locally, such as Yale.

 After the August 2016 decision, graduate students in eight departments at Yale voted to unionize (only the Physics Department voted against unionization). However, Yale has refused to recognize and negotiate with the newly certified bargaining representative, finding fault with the way the graduate students want to unionize – into eight different “micro-units” that will bargain separately on behalf of the eight different academic departments rather than in a school-wide bargaining unit that will bargain on behalf of all eight departments. 

Some speculate that another reason – or the “real” reason – that Yale is refusing to come to the table is because it is waiting for President Trump to make management-friendly appointments to the NLRB (as opposed to Obama’s labor-friendly appointments), with the expectation being that a majority management-friendly NLRB will overturn the August 2016 rule through a decision of its own to the contrary. Interestingly, the August 2016 decision by the “Obama Board” overturned a 2004 decision by the “Bush Board” that graduate students are students, not employees and, therefore, cannot form a union. Clearly, the rules announced by the NLRB through its decisions can shift depending on its ideological make-up, and the “Trump Board” will most likely continue that trend.

 As for other higher education union organizing campaigns, unions have had mixed results. Graduate student unions exist, for example, at Columbia, Harvard, Duke, and Cornell. Earlier this month, undergraduate and graduate library workers at the University of Chicago voted to unionize. In contrast, for example, part-time faculty at the University of New Haven rejected representation in an election that occurred earlier this month, and results in a union election for adjunct professors at Vanderbilt University were inconclusive.

 We will continue to follow union organizing in higher education and post any updates as they come.


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