After years of fighting for union recognition, Columbia graduate students found themselves at the forefront of a landmark case when in 2016, a 3-1 decision by the National Labor Relations Board overturned a decades-long precedent in favor of allowing graduate students to unionize at Columbia and other private universities across the nation—.
“I’m proud, and I will always be proud of that,” said United Auto Workers Local 2110 Organizer Olga Brudastova, who was a member of Graduate Workers of Columbia from 2014 until her graduation in 2018. “We changed the law—we allowed thousands and thousands of graduate workers to unionize, and we launched a wave across the country. … It was a defining moment for our graduate students and for those across the nation.”
During this time, graduate student unions nationwide continued to face significant pushback from universities, many of which argued that unionization would undermine their primary academic missions by complicating the relationship between teaching assistants and professors. Prior to the 2016 decision, only one union had a contract with a private university. Since then, a number of graduate students have found forward momentum—five unions, including those at New York University and Tufts, now hold such contracts, while 15 have held votes to unionize, according to data from Hunter College.
But on Friday, the NLRB—whose jurisdiction covers private universities—proposed new regulations that would effectively strip teaching and research assistants of the right to unionize, declaring that their primary relationships with universities are educational. Though they will not go into effect until they are officially recognized after a comment period of 60 days, or graduate student unions like GWC-UAW, the proposed regulations may give private universities the upper hand in negotiations, legal experts say. For those not yet recognized by their institutions, the regulations may render unionization an all but impossible dream.
Columbia declined to comment on whether it was reviewing the proposed regulations or whether they would impact its bargaining strategies.
Following a week-long strike by graduate students during finals last May, University administrators announced in November that they would bargain with the union in the coming months—introducing a framework that would allow Columbia to have final say over any issue it deemed an academic matter and bars the union from authorizing another strike until April 2020. The decision came after years of tension and deadlock; Columbia filed objections with the NLRB even after graduate students held an official vote to unionize in 2016. The NLRB ultimately overruled the University’s objections, officially certifying the union in 2017 and paving the path to bargaining efforts.
But with the new ruling, unions not yet recognized by their private universities—such as those at the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University—will no longer have the option of appealing to the board. It may also reduce incentives for universities to enter into contracts with unions, according to Former Chairman of the NLRB William Gould.
“[Graduate student unions] can still rely on voluntary recognition from their institutions, which has happened in a few cases. But this decision does pose obstacles,” he said. “It definitely will impact [universities’] willingness to enter into future voluntary recognition agreements.”
On the other hand, the new ruling’s impact on recognized graduate student remains to be seen, Gould added.
“It might embolden universities, but it doesn’t change much as of now,” Gould said. “We’ll have to see how different institutions respond to the regulations.”
Over the past two years, the Trump administration has gradually moved to replace NLRB members with conservative officials who voted to limit union powers this past July. In light of this shifting political landscape, many legal experts have pointed to a reversal of the 2016 decision as a predictable move for the new board.
However, such decisions are typically reached in the adjudication of a case, not in the release of a statement, according to legal experts and even former board members. Gould said he was unaware of a case where the board used rule-making to overturn a previous decision, describing the announcement as “unprecedented.”
Former White House labor policy advisor Gordon Lafer criticized the apparent motives behind the decision.
“It seems like a purely political move that has no relation either to really the facts on the ground of the function, of graduate student teachers and researchers, or decades of legal precedent,” Lafer said.
For some involved in unionization efforts at Columbia, the announcement posed a harsh blow in light of the national momentum afforded by the 2016 decision, according to Brudastova.
“We’ve been working to restore our rights to organize and bargain collectively for years. It’s been almost two decades of unionizing at Columbia and just having many of those efforts overturned now is devastating,” Brudastova said.
In spite of these concerns, union spokesperson Colleen Baublitz emphasized that GWC would continue to push for graduate workers’ rights through negotiations without pause.
“We entered into a [bargaining framework] with Columbia, and we expect them to uphold that,” Baublitz said. “We’ve been working a long time to address workplace discrimination and harassment and healthcare, and we’re going to continue doing so.”