Graduate Students Attempt to Revive “Comatose” NLRB, Demand a Decision on Union Recognition Case

By Jay Sosa

Yesterday, graduate students from the University of Chicago handed a petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) based in Washington DC, asking that they rule on the case of the New York University (NYU) graduate employee union by December 31. Sound confusing? Welcome to NLRB-land, where the board that adjudicates labor disputes has been understaffed and over-politicized for some time. Normally composed of five members, the NLRB has suffered from attrition in the past three years, as members’ terms have expired without replacements. Senate Republicans have refused to confirm President Obama’s appointments to the board, and the Supreme Court ruled that the NLRB can only make decisions while composed of a three-member quorum.

In 2010, Obama made two recess appointments to the board. The two temporary appointments, combined with the two regular members, allowed the board to function normally. But one member’s term expired in August 2011, and one of the temporary appointments loses their seat on January 1, 2012. When this happens, the NLRB will again lack a quorum and be effectively powerless to rule on cases.

Graduate students at private universities are particularly anxious about a case before the board that will determine whether their home universities are compelled to recognize students’ teaching unions. Unlike many public universities, private universities are not legally required to recognize unions that represent graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants. The status of graduate student instructors at private universities has been a contested issue since 2000. At that time, the NLRB unanimously ruled that NYU must recognize its graduate student union. After the NYU ruling, graduate student teachers at other universities, including Brown University, also attempted to form unions.

When Brown University administrators challenged the legitimacy of the graduate teachers’ union in 2004, the NLRB (then constituted with many Bush appointees) rejected the union and reversed the 2000 NYU ruling. The 2004 reversal is controversial. In a recent letter to their members, the AAUP called the decision “an exceptionally undemocratic denial of employees’ rights.” When Obama made two emergency appointments to the board, organizers at New York University almost immediately began a new union certification campaign and brought a second case to the NLRB. It is the second NYU case that many graduate students at private universities want the NLRB to address.

Anticipating that the end of the temporary appointment to the board would delay a ruling on graduate student instructors until at least 2013, organizers with Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago began a petition to demand the NLRB rule on the second NYU case. Since the Grad Labor Counts campaign started just three weeks ago, the movement has gotten some serious attention. Over 2800 people from around the country have signed the petition at gradlaborcounts.org, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten as well as American Association of University Professors have written statements of support.

Yesterday, the Grad Labor Counts campaign presented their petition and staged an emergency-room drama outside of the Chicago office of the NLRB. Demonstrators in medical scrubs wheeled in a “comatose” NLRB (played by a UChicago grad employee) on a gurney, and using a megaphone paged President Obama to the emergency room. When the president did not come to save the NLRB, the chorus shouted, “the NLRB doesn’t have much time!” Graduate students activists know they are up against the clock. If the board doesn’t make a decision on the NYU case by the end of the year, unions at private universities may remain in limbo for the foreseeable future.

Jay Sosa is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology and an organizer with Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago.  He currently lives in São Paulo, Brazil, where he is conducting fieldwork for his dissertation. For more on the Grad Labor Counts campaign, go to: www.gradlaborcounts.org.

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