Fighting for Graduate Students’ Right to Bargain and Unionize

Joseph van der Naald (Photo courtesy of van der Naald)

The National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency responsible for enforcing the country’s collective bargaining laws, has proposed a new rule that would exclude some 81,000 graduate assistants on private campuses across the country from the right to unionize and collectively bargain under the National Labor Relations Act.
 
In response, Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate Joseph van der Naald (Sociology) and Hunter College Distinguished Lecturer William Herbert examined the terms of 42 current collective bargaining agreements involving graduate and undergraduate student employees in the United States in research they hope the NLRB will consider when making its decision.
 
“For over 50 years the National Labor Relations Board has gone back and forth on the question of whether graduate assistants are entitled to collective bargaining and unionization rights under the National Labor Relations Act,” Herbert tells The Graduate Center. “It’s been hotly contested in the agency. It goes back and forth with reversals on a pretty regular basis — one saying they have the right to unionization and another saying they don’t. What the NLRB is trying to do is short-circuit all that … they’ve chosen to create a rule that would exclude graduate assistants and student workers from representation.”
 
Those who have argued for the exclusion claim that allowing graduate assistants to unionize would negatively impact their relationship with faculty, according to the duo. However, van der Naald and Herbert note that graduate assistants at CUNY have been allowed union representation for at least 50 years with no threat to faculty-graduate student relations.
 
The NLRB received more than 13,000 comments from the public regarding the rule.
 
“The comment period is important because it allows for people to be engaged and involved in these issues,” van der Naald says. “Graduate student unions have been mobilizing their membership to both make public comments and respond to them. This is an important way of getting people involved and making sure they understand the implications of these court decisions, which could really affect the ways they interact with their universities.”
 
The pair collected data from NLRB case filings and contract materials from unions across the country.
 
“What we really want is for the National Labor Relations Board to make a data-informed decision,” van der Naald says. “With this information they can make a better-informed decision that we believe may set a strong case for showing that students have an economic role in the institutions they’re enrolled in and the work that they do.” 
 
Herbert serves as executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College. And van der Naald has worked closely with Herbert on labor issues since joining the center.
 
“I'm a sociologist, and I'm interested in collective action and social change,” van der Naald says. “Understanding how social movements and groups of people interact with the state and the government in order to change society is really interesting and something that I've been fascinated with my entire academic career.”

Submitted on: APR 20, 2020

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