We Condemn Private Universities’ Attempts to Undermine Graduate Workers’ Rights


Over the past nine months, graduate employees at private universities have faced vicious campaigns and legal challenges from university administrations as they have attempted to exercise their freedom to join together in a union to negotiate collectively for better working conditions.

The American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Graduate and Professional Students condemns the concerted campaign by private universities across the United States to obstruct the democratic rights and freedoms of their graduate employees.

The formal rights of graduate employees at private universities to collectively form a union were restored by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on August 23, 2016. The board reasoned that “there is no compelling reason—in theory or in practice—to conclude that collective bargaining by student assistants cannot be viable or that it would seriously interfere with higher education.” It ruled that “student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees entitled to the protections of the [National Labor Relations] Act.”

Despite the NLRB’s recognition and defense of collective bargaining rights for graduate employees, administrators at private universities have attempted to suppress these rights by obstructing free and fair elections, as well as by delaying negotiation by asserting spurious legal claims. The strategy of elite private universities is clear—obstruct and delay until a Trump-appointed labor board corroborates their capricious legal claims.

  • At Harvard University, the NLRB ruled that the university did not comply with voter list requirements and mandated that a new election be held.
  • At Columbia University, after graduate employees voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining together in union, the administration challenged the election. The regional board determined that the university’s challenges were unfounded. Columbia nevertheless appealed the decision.
  • At Yale University, graduate employees in eight departments petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for a union election, and an election was ordered soon after. After graduate employees voted to join together in union, however, Yale appealed to the National Labor Relations Board.
  • At the New School, graduate employees participated in a union election in May 2017. However, the administration questioned the eligibility of the participants and challenged the ballots.
  • At the University of Chicago, the administration continues to obstruct the conduct of a vote despite a majority of graduate employees across several divisions filing a petition to hold a union election.

The undemocratic behavior at some of our most esteemed institutions of higher learning in the United States is untenable. They have spent millions of dollars in attorney fees fighting a legal battle that is not only unjust, but unreasonable. The freedom to join a union and to negotiate collectively with one’s colleagues for better working conditions and fair compensation is a cornerstone of US labor relations, as outlined in the AAUP’s Statement on Collective Bargaining. Denying the contribution and labor of graduate employees not only demeans the institutions they serve, but undermines the basic values to which these universities are committed.

When graduate employees stand up for their rights to dignity, a voice, and collective action, our universities become more egalitarian, just, and productive centers for higher learning and achievement. It is imperative that universities respect these rights, in the interest of the common good.

Photo credit Claudio Gonzáles 12Photo credit Claudio Gonzáles Pictured AAUP grad committee member Abhishek BhattacharyyaPhoto credit Claudio Gonzáles Pictured Daniela Palmer and Natalia Piland ChicchonPhoto credit Claudio Gonzáles Pictured Marco O'Really Oh and Mathilde Gerbelli-GauthierPhoto credit Claudio Gonzáles Pictured Simone Brandford-AltsherPhoto credit Claudio Gonzáles18698187_1415984271774398_3359203686248792653_n

Photo credit: Claudio Gonzáles / Community supporters join Graduate Students United in Chicago for a march and rally on May 25.

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3 thoughts on “We Condemn Private Universities’ Attempts to Undermine Graduate Workers’ Rights

  1. Pingback: U. of Chicago Professor Defends Graduate Student Union Drive | ACADEME BLOG

  2. I applaud the students for exercising their right to protest when the administrations of schools prohibit students from requesting/protesting for change of old, antiquated systems that discourage advancement. Universities should be amenable to student needs, after All without students and taxpayer dollars, universities would not exist. Universities should not “bite the hands of students” that feed them. I say “Bravo” to the young people who have the courage and commitment to institute positive change!

  3. I agree that universities must respect graduate student rights and allow for unions and collective bargaining. I was a victim of academic misconduct at NYU during my tenure as a graduate student. I successfully completed my Ph.D. and was awarded the degree after many years of hard work and dedication….after which I submitted a manuscript to be published in a peer reviewed journal based upon my dissertation. I named my thesis advisor co-author. He promptly submitted my manuscript to a top journal in my field after removing my name from the byline. He removed my name as author in order to claim full credit for my dissertation discoveries. The journal, NYU and the ORI refused to protect my right to authorship credit. To date there is no protection for ANY graduate student to claim or regain stolen credit for their dissertation research. The doctrines agreed to between the NRLB and the universities must assert the right of graduate students to claim authorship credit for their original approved dissertations….their calling care for post Ph.D. employment. To date universities and the ORI are unwilling to protect this right. Unions are the only hope to protect authorship credit for students……if they will take the time and make the effort to incorporate the proper language into their collective bargaining agreements with universities on behalf of graduate student employees.

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