Will NLRB Continue To Deny Rights To Graduate Student Workers?

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The National Labor Relations Board has only 11 days left to make a decision on whether or not to restore union rights to graduate school workers in a New York University dispute, which could have broader implications at private universities across the country. In 2000, members of the Board appointed by Bill Clinton gave students at NYU the right to be represented by the United Auto Workers. By 2004, the Board was then controlled by George W. Bush appointees and the students' right to organize was taken away. Barack Obama's administration has signaled sympathy to the plight of the graduate students, but the Supreme Court has ruled that the Board can't issue decisions without a quorum of three members. Because of Mitch McConnell and Senate Republican obstruction of Obama's appointees, however, the quorum can't currently be met. And it seems unlikely that the Senate will move on the appointments before next November's election, meaning that it could be until 2013 before the Board can issue any decisions.

Contingent labor by graduate students is a linchpin in the economic model of the modern private university. Though administrators frame teaching as a learning opportunity for Ph. D. students, universities earn hefty sums by shifting teaching from better-compensated faculty to graduate students with worse compensation and no job security. More than 70 percent of the teaching at NYU is done by graduate students, post-docs, or other non-tenure-track teachers.

Graduate students are also integral to scientific research, which provides many elite universities with far more income than student tuition. Under the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, universities can secure huge federal research grants, execute them with graduate student labor, and sell their findings to private corporations—with neither graduate student researchers nor taxpayers holding copyright claims to the work they made possible.

In contrast, 30 public universities have graduate student unions. Some have played pivotal roles in this year’s uprisings. Under the leadership of a newly-elected reform slate, UAW Local 2865 has been a prime mover in the Occupy movement in the University of California system. Members of the University of Wisconsin Teaching Assistants Association (TAA) helped instigate the takeover of their state’s capitol. Having declined the pursue the anemic form of recognition available under Scott Walker’s “budget repair” regime, TAA members are now, like their private sector counterparts, a union without legal recognition.

The Board could theoretically act before December 31, since they still have a quorum until that point, which is when an Obama recess appointment expires, but close observers to the Board say action in that time frame is unlikely.

Some legal scholars suggest that the Board had no legal basis for its previous ruling and that the graduate students should be allowed to unionize anyway, but it's unlikely any union formed in light of the previous Board rulings will be recognized by private universities or the government.

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