Striking teaching assistants protest on the campus of Columbia University in April 2018.
Last week, President Trump’s National Labor Relations Board unveiled its rulemaking agenda for the coming months. Under the hatchet this season are precedents that allow workers to organize on company property, that limit management’s ability to delay union elections, and that enable graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants to unionize.
The NLRB has gone back and forth on the question of graduate student unionization for decades, with Democratic-dominated boards ruling the students have that right, and Republican-dominated boards taking it away. Now, the GOP’s anti-union fervor has become so intense that the Board isn’t even waiting for a graduate student case to come before it. Breaking with precedent, the Republican members have decided to short-circuit the process by dealing with the issue through its rulemaking process, effectively overriding what has been, until now, a tacit understanding between the parties that fundamental questions are settled through decisions on cases.
Until last week’s announcement, many graduate (and even some undergraduate) unions played a risky game of recognition chicken with the hostile NLRB: Use the threat of filing with the NLRB to organize on campus and pressure administrators to recognize the union, then pull the petition before the Republican board members could use the appeal to overturn the Obama-era precedent enshrining the students’ rights. With this recent rulemaking announcement, it looks like this strategy is now a nonstarter.
Nonetheless, many have been quick to point out that in attempting to make a hard-and-fast rule blocking students’ right to organize, the NLRB is playing with fire. After all, the National Labor Relations Act, which created the NLRB, sought to channel and quell worker unrest that in the preceding year (1934) had led to general strikes that closed down two major cities (San Francisco and Minneapolis).
Eliminating legal protections for unions doesn’t make unions disappear. It can well make them more militant—particularly since the strike becomes their only remaining option. And with clauses in many unions’ contracts stipulating that negotiations are contingent on the ruling of the Board, many schools seem poised to nullify their commitments to collective bargaining. That doesn’t mean they can nullify strikes, however.
The ruling would come at what is already a time of militancy on campus. Since the Obama-era Board affirmed graduate students’ right to unionize in the Columbia case, the ranks of organized students have both swelled and solidified. A number of universities, including Brown, Harvard, NYU, Georgetown, Duke, and Yale, have all seen successful union campaigns, and since the ruling more than 22,000 students on other campuses are eligible to unionize. Should the NLRB eliminate the regulated channels for collective bargaining, a new wave of graduate student militancy may well be on the horizon.
For Susannah Glickman, a union organizer and doctoral student in history at Columbia University, the announcement marks the beginning, not the end of a renewed fight for workers’ rights.“Graduate workers will keep organizing to improve our working conditions and our universities regardless of the NLRB’s agenda,” Glickman says. “Attacks like these won’t dampen our growing movement, or the resurgence of labor as a whole.”