The Right to Unionize or Not

NRLB’s decision is praiseworthy for giving students the power to make this controversial choice

For more than a year, conversations about potential graduate student unionization were overshadowed by a pending decision from the National Labor Relations Board about whether graduate students have the right to unionize.

But following a recent board ruling that graduate students have a right to hold a vote to unionize, this obstacle has been removed. The 3-1 ruling—overturning a precedent from 2004 that private universities did not have to recognize graduate student unions—clears the way for the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers’ push for collective bargaining rights.

This victory for advocates of unionization contrasts sharply with statements made by Harvard administrators, among them University President Drew G. Faust, who believe that unionization would harm faculty-student relationships by transforming them into adversarial employer-employee relationships.

Graduate students, by virtue of the teaching appointments they hold and the research they conduct, function as employees as well as students, so the decision to offer them the option to bargain collectively is a commendable one. Ultimately, the decision of whether to unionize is one that the graduate student body must make. But, as employees of Harvard, they should, and now do, have every right to make it for themselves.

There are legitimate arguments for and against unionization. On the one hand, the union's rights are valuable bargaining tools for graduate students in their interactions with Harvard’s administration. As we have previously opined, even the possibility of unionization has gained leverage for graduate students seeking to bargain with the administration.

Furthermore, there is considerable enthusiasm within the graduate student body for the prospect of unionization, as more than 60 percent of graduate students employed by the University have already signed authorization cards calling for a vote on the creation of a union—twice the 30 percent threshold for a vote.

Despite students’ eagerness, however, the NLRB's ruling neither necessitates nor justifies unionization. Reservations held by the administration, and even some graduate students, are legitimate ones.

Faust, for instance, has warned of the potential degradation of the sacrosanct faculty-student relationship to a transactional employer-employee dynamic. Likewise, recently improved parental accommodations demonstrate that graduate students can secure improved benefits without a union.

Whatever its advantages and drawbacks, unionization is now open to discussion among graduate students without legal speed bumps impeding their efforts. The vote they will hold is a vitally important one that will color many of their interactions with Harvard. It is crucial that this vote will be held solely on the merits of collective bargaining and not be undermined by legal niceties before it even takes place.

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