Grad student unions may become more common after new strategy

A labor board will decide what constitutes an appropriate bargaining unit

Graduate students at Yale University are taking a new approach to unionization that could have a ripple effect on campuses nationwide. 

In August, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate student employees at nonprofit, private universities may form unions, overturning a 2004 decision.

Following the ruling, Unite Here Local 33 (Local33), the union of graduate employees at Yale, petitioned for union elections in nine academic departments. This strategy of forming graduate unions in "micro-units" of academic departments could have a significant impact on collective bargaining at other institutions, experts say. With a micro-unit approach, activists could petition for union elections in departments that are supportive of the cause, making collective bargaining easier.

Yale objects to the practice and is in talks with a regional director of the NLRB to determine its legality. The issue lies with whether micro-units can be considered appropriate bargaining units. A 2011 labor board ruling clarified that an employer who challenges a bargaining unit must be able to demonstrate that employees who are not part of the unit have an "overwhelming community of interest" with included members.

Yale law professor Michael Wishnie says that the labor board must also determine whether workers:

  • Have specific skills, training, and responsibilities;
  • Are supervised independently; and
  • Are different from other units. 

"The inquiry is whether the proposed bargaining unit is an appropriate unit, not the most appropriate unit," Wishnie says. "So there's a little bit of a thumb on the scale in favor of the workers."

Some students also oppose the micro-unit strategy, such as doctoral student Alexandru Georgescu. He says Local33 is attempting to "bypass a normal democratic election," arguing, "They're saying, 'We're going to have a union whether you want one or not.'"

Students who support microunits argue that they are appropriate bargaining units because work experiences and conditions differ across disciplines.

"It's a specific way of thinking about teaching that is different than other departments on campus," says doctoral student Emily Sessions.

Aaron Greenberg, a doctoral student and Local33 chair, argues the strategy allows for more customization. "Departments that want to have a union will have one, and those that don't won't," he says.

With labor boards increasingly ruling in favor of unionization efforts and more adjuncts and graduate students working in higher education, the faculty labor movement can't be ignored, Jarrett Carter writes for Education Dive. Carter says that campus leaders must be transparent with budgets, collective bargaining tenets in the midst of collective bargaining efforts (Patel, Chronicle of Higher Education, 10/30; Carter, Education Dive, 11/1). 

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