Grad Student Unions Across U.S. Withdraw Representation Petitions

The Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Federal Building
The National Labor Relations Board's Boston regional office is housed in the Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Federal Building in Boston.

Graduate student unions at Boston College, Yale, University of Chicago, and University of Pennsylvania have withdrawn petitions to represent students at those campuses before the National Labor Relations Board over the past two weeks.

The decisions to stall unionization efforts come amid ongoing disputes between unionization advocates and universities over recognition of graduate student unions before the NLRB. The goal, according to organizers and labor experts, is to preclude a Republican-led NLRB from issuing a ruling that strikes graduate students’ right to unionize.

The United Automobile Workers, UNITE-HERE, the American Federation of Teachers, and the American Association of University Professors, which are affiliated with unionization efforts at those universities, made the move in anticipation of a vote by a Senate committee to advance labor attorney John F. Ring’s nomination for the NLRB. If confirmed, Ring would be President Donald Trump’s fourth and final appointment to the five-person board.

Penn’s graduate union, Graduate Employees Together-UPenn, wrote on its Facebook page that the decision to halt legal proceedings was made by its members last week.

“We made this decision in a Special General Body Members’ Meeting on Thursday, February 15, and our petition to withdraw was submitted to the NLRB today, and we are waiting for an official acceptance notice,” the post read.

According to former NLRB chairman William B. Gould IV, the board is likely to reverse the standing precedent on graduate student unionization after a third Republican joins the board. A 2016 NLRB ruling directed at Columbia University established the most recent precedent for graduate student unionization under the National Labor Relations Act.

“I think one of the first issues on which the board would like to provide a reversal is the precedent that emerged during the Obama board’s tenure,” Gould said.

The impact of the rescinded petitions on Harvard’s upcoming unionization election, scheduled for April 18 and 19, is unclear. Even if union advocates prevail in April, a change in the NLRB’s position could endanger a graduate student union’s authority to collectively bargain with the University.

Unlike the cases at other universities, the UAW’s petition to represent Harvard’s graduate and undergraduate teaching and research assistants is not currently pending before the NLRB. Per a 2016 election agreement between the University and Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Automobile Workers, Harvard has not asked the NLRB to reconsider its position on graduate students’ employment status.

In the wake of the withdrawals, Director of Labor and Employee Relations Paul R. Curran sent an email to students on Friday stating that preparations for Harvard’s unionization election will proceed as planned, despite the developments at other campuses.

“The UAW has not communicated an intention to withdraw its petition to represent Harvard students holding teaching or research positions, and the University is therefore moving forward with identifying eligible voters for the election currently scheduled for April 18 and 19, 2018,” Curran wrote.

HGSU-UAW organizer Andrew B. Donnelly wrote in an email that he would disapprove of any changes to the University’s original position in 2016 due to changes in the composition of the NLRB.

“When Harvard attorneys signed the initial election agreement in 2016, they indicated that they would bargain with us in good faith if we won. Like many of us, they thought Hillary Clinton would be president,” Donnelly wrote in an email. “For them to change their position because Donald Trump is president would be political opportunism at its worst.”

University of Oregon Professor of Labor Education Gordon Lafer wrote in an email that he expected Harvard administrators to take advantage of the Trump board’s “anti-labor orientation,” adding that doing so would be “entirely unprincipled.”

“They're all happy to jump on any excuse, including taking advantage of the Trump administration's anti-labor orientation, to deny the democratic voice of grad students or anyone else they can,” Lafer wrote.

University representatives declined further comment.

—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.

—Staff writer Molly C. McCafferty can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mollmccaff.


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