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Grad students deserve respect, right to unionize

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has recently reversed its previous decision denying granted graduate students the right to unionize and giving them the rights of employees.

Their decision comes in the wake of a petition filed at Columbia University. The ruling was 3-1 in favor of graduate students having the right to collective bargaining. With all the work that seems to be done by graduate students, it seems to be the obvious response to allow them to behave as actual employees, but for the NLRB this decision has been anything but simple. One of the main reasons for initially not giving graduate students the ability to unionize was the “primary purpose” or “primary relationship” ideology. First applied to Adelphi University in 1972, this is the idea that graduate students’ primary purpose on campus is to learn and that jobs such as teaching and working as a research assistant facilitate this. This decision was notably overturned in 2000 and then, in 2004, the NLRB returned back to the “primary purpose” justification.

The NLRB has maintained the idea that graduate students are not protected under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), only wavering from this opinion between 2000 and 2004. The NLRA is an act that protects the rights of employees to unionize, participate in collective bargaining, and go on strike. This act initially did not cover any employees of private universities, but this changed in 1970 when the NLRB decided that differentiating between commercial and noncommercial activity was not necessary. This is when the NLRB decided that private universities would be included in this jurisdiction.

The distinction between what is being done by graduate students for educational purposes and what is being done for commercial purposes seems to often be what causes the NLRB to go back on its decisions.

While graduate students are on campus to learn, they end up being so much more than just students while they are on campus, with not all of their tasks being essential to their learning. As teaching assistants, they are often teaching introductory level material in their field. They’re left with the task of going into detail and further explaining the material in ways that the professor often does not have time to do in lecture. With lectures being so large, it is the time during recitations with teaching assistants that really makes the difference for most students.

This experience can be useful for graduate students, but they are usually teaching information that they already have a pretty comprehensive knowledge of. The idea that they are furthering their education through this process does not really hold up well. They are teaching recitations for the benefit of undergraduate students, not necessarily for themselves.

In addition to playing a pivotal role in the education process for undergraduate students, graduate students also play an important role in the development of research at universities. While this is something that graduate students can benefit from educationally, it is also something the world can benefit from. So many ideas for products start as an idea between a graduate student and a professor in a research lab. For this, graduate students deserve to be able to protect their rights as employees. Graduate school is not easy to afford, and for all the work that they do in addition to their classes, they deserve to be able to negotiate their salaries.

The indecisiveness of the NLRB is not only giving everyone whiplash, but it’s also unfair to graduate students who are unable to negotiate their rights when these students play such an important role in undergraduate universities. Their rights are often ignored with much of the focus at many universities being placed on undergraduate students. Graduate students are the silent heroes that keep universities thriving. Even at schools like Carnegie Mellon that have roughly the same number of graduate and undergraduate students, they can be a separate entity that is often not heard by undergraduates outside of recitation. They deserve to have a collective voice, and that voice often gets drowned out amid the voices of professors and undergraduate students.

Graduate students have been treated as second-class citizens by the NLRB. They are students, but the work that they do whether it is for educational gain or financial incentives keep universities thriving and allow them to continue to receive grants to fund research. Research has shown that the ability to unionize will not harm faculty-student relationships, so there is no incentive for the NLRB to continually deny graduate students the same rights as other employees. This should be the NLRB’s last decision regarding the matter. It’s hard to believe that graduate students have only been given four years of the recognition that they deserve. Hopefully, this time, it will be a decision that sticks.