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Sanders’s New Senate Bill Could Protect Graduate Student Workers’ Employee Rights from Proposed NLRB Ruling, Experts Say

Amid a challenge to graduate unionization from the National Labor Relations Board, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) introduced a new bill which — if passed — could protect graduate student workers' status as employees.
Amid a challenge to graduate unionization from the National Labor Relations Board, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) introduced a new bill which — if passed — could protect graduate student workers' status as employees. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Davit Antonyan, Crimson Staff Writer

Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) has introduced a new bill which — if passed — could protect graduate student workers’ employee rights from a proposed National Labor Relations Board rule that would classify graduate student workers as non-employees, experts say.

Sanders introduced the bill to the Senate on Jan. 22. He said it would prohibit the NLRB from “enacting a proposed rule which would strip graduate student workers’ right to unionize” in a press release.

Sanders’s bill represents the continuation of H.R.5104 — the Respect Graduate Student Workers Act, which was initially proposed by United States Representative Mark W. Pocan (D-Wisc.) in Nov. 2019.

The Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers won the right to unionize in 2018, but if the NLRB’s proposed rule were to be passed, there would be no legal requirement that the University should recognize that right.

William A. Herbert, the executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, City University of New York, said the proposed rule would leave it to the University to decide whether or not to honor the union’s status.

“If there's no contract in place at Harvard with the graduate assistants, and the NLRB issues a rule that says that graduate systems are not covered under the National Labor Relations Act, then the university would have the discretion to say that they're not going to continue to recognize the union,” Herbert said.

He said regardless of the decision that the NLRB makes, whether a university chooses to honor its students’ right to unionize or not speaks to its moral values.

“Institutions that understand collective bargaining to be a form of workplace democracy probably will be more likely to engage in voluntary recognition,” Herbert added.

University of Oregon associate professor Gordon Lafer, who formerly served as a senior labor policy advisor for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor, wrote in an email to The Crimson that he believes the bill Sanders and Pocan have introduced is an appropriate response to the actions of the current NLRB.

“What Sanders' bill does is stop this ongoing game of political football with the labor rights of graduate students, by putting into law what every other authority has recognized, and what is the palpable reality of university life,” Lafer wrote.

Former NLRB Chairman William B. Gould IV said that the NLRB has generally used rulemaking sparingly, and usually to “clarify ambiguity that exists in the current wall.”

“This would be the first instance of doctrinal reversal through rulemaking,” Gould said. “I think it's inappropriate and I think Senator Sanders and others are wise to attempt to stop this.”

Though the NLRB is likely to adopt this proposed rule, according to Gould, he said he thought that the Respect Graduate Student Workers Act is an effective response to how the NLRB has handled graduate students’ right to collective bargaining in the past.

“It would clearly give graduate students the right to organize and to bargain collectively — something that has been provided for by the National Labor Relations Act, but for which we have every indication that this board will try to take away from graduate students,” Gould said.

University spokesperson Jonathan Swain declined to comment on what effects the proposed NLRB rule would have on union negotiations. Swain referred to an earlier comment on the status of the HGSU-UAW negotiations, which said that the University is “currently reviewing the proposed rule to assess its implications.”

The proposed rule is open for a public comment period until Feb. 28, after which the NLRB will review comments and ultimately decide whether or not to adopt the proposed rule as a final rule.

Still, Gould said it’s “quite likely” that the NLRB will have a sufficient majority to adopt the rule.

“They're entirely predictable along ideological lines,” he said.

—Staff writer Davit Antonyan can be reached at

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