After Harvard teaching and research assistants voted to unionize last semester — and after the University agreed to honor the results of that vote — labor experts predicted the series of historic events would spur other American schools to follow in Harvard's footsteps.
Four months later, that forecast has proved partially correct at best. The fledgling graduate student unionization moment in the United States has seen mixed results around the country in recent weeks and is today moving forward in fits and starts.
Campus graduate students voted to unionize — allowing Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers to collectively bagain with the University on their behalf — over the course of a two-day election held in mid-April. Eleven days later, Harvard administrators declared they planned to formally recognize and negotiate with its brand-new union. In making the announcement, the University became the first private institution of higher education to agree to bargain in good faith with its students in years.
Following a 2016 National Labor Relations Board ruling that recognized teaching and research assistants at private universities as workers, graduate students around the country began a spate of unionization efforts. Harvard’s decision to bargain marked a departure from the precedent set by peer institutions in earlier cases.
Things weren't looking so good for union advocates in the months preceding this spring’s election. Unionization efforts at Yale, the University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania had stalled. Just weeks before the Harvard vote, Columbia administrators refused to bargain in good faith with the New York school's newly authorized union.
While some graduate unions have scored victories in the months since, most universities have not adhered to Harvard’s example.
At Columbia, administrators still refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a 2016 NLRB election that authorized the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW to negotiate with the university over wages and benefits. In response, teaching and research assistants went on strike last spring.
In addition to striking and putting public pressure on their university, GWC-UAW organizers could file an unfair labor practices charge with the Board. But — unwilling to offer the NLRB an opportunity to strike down its seminal 2016 pro-union ruling — they have declined to do so, joining a growing list of union organizers that are carefully avoiding bringing legal skirmishes with administrators before the NLRB.
Former NLRB chairman William B. Gould IV said this strategy, though effective in preventing the Board from reversing its precedent, has left the Columbia case “completely static.”
“Because the union did not file an unfair labor practices complaint, the Board has nothing to stand on to enforce the certification,” Gould said. “The university can simply refuse to bargain.”
“How far this will go is difficult to say — universities may, in some respects, mirror private employers in that they won’t bargain unless the government compels them to do it,” he added.
GWC-UAW organizer Olga Brudastova wrote in an email that Columbia graduate workers are preparing to continue the strike they started before classes ended last spring. She said she expects the union will be able to count on widespread support if teaching and research assistants decide to walk out this fall.
“We are confident that large numbers of faculty, students, alumni, and elected and community leaders will continue to stand with us,” Brudastova wrote. “We urge Columbia to live up to its core principles, follow the lead of nine private universities – including Harvard – and agree to respect our voice and start bargaining.”
Other unions have seen greater success — some by breaking from NLRB procedures entirely.
At Georgetown and Brown, students and administrators agreed to pursue authorization elections for their unions via a neutral third party, the American Arbitration Association. Both unions have reached election agreements with administrators and are preparing to vote on the issue, though neither has set an election date.
Gould said the variety of responses across these universities represent a newly broad array of strategies.
“Columbia is at one end of the spectrum, universities like Georgetown and Brandeis at the other,” Gould said. “Harvard is sort of a hybrid situation because you have a full-fledged NLRB campaign; their approach to this in some ways resembles Georgetown but diverges in others.”
Georgetown union organizer Chad Frazier said organizers’ efforts at Georgetown and Brown show that there may be paths to successful unionization that do not involve the Board.
“We’ve got a little bit of a security blanket,” Frazier said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, but also I think it was huge for grad workers across the country when Harvard agreed to bargain, especially after all the stuff that came out of the first election and the prestige of the institution.”
“Everyone is in a state of cautious optimism,” he added.