Grad student community struggles with politics of TA unionization

Pro-union graduate students are not changing their approach to grad student work conditions despite an unfavorable ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) concerning graduate student unionizations.

Under the current NRLB’s standing, Tufts University is not legally obligated to recognize a graduate student union.

Those in favor of a graduate student union insist that the oppositional framework of a union is necessary for real reforms to be made, but proponents of cooperation with the Tufts administration say that progress is being made.

Currently, the Graduate Student Council (GSC) works to improve life for graduate students in the School of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering (ASE), according to GSC President Amanda Pavlick.

“Our representatives sit on numerous committees at various levels of the University, giving us excellent visibility and a voice to the administrators that is not only heard, but welcomed,” Pavlick said in an e-mail to The Tufts Daily. “Each year we are encouraged by the progress we are able to make on behalf of all graduate students at Tufts.”

University President Larry Bacow and Robin Kanarek, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said graduate students should work through the current institutional structure in order to improve their student life – and expressed their dedication to the students’ well-being.

“We are willing to talk with graduate students about life here,” Kanarek said. “Our goal is to help them.”

Kanarek said raising the stipends of teaching assistants (TAs) was “a priority” and a cross-departmental effort, but added that the TA experience did not count as student employment in her view.

“I really don’t see students as employees – teaching is an important part of the career,” she said. “What I learned as a TA is what allows me to get up and teach, not my research. One of most important things is how to effectively communicate whether you learn to be a professor or go into business.”

Kanarek said the University was working to find money to increase TA stipends and that the University was aiming for equivalent, or better, stipends on the level of its peer institutions such as Dartmouth or Cornell.

Union supporters, however, assert that a formal and standardized contract of working conditions is necessary to ensure a fair work agreement.

Joe Ramsey, a Ph.D. student and organizer for the Association of Student Employees at Tufts (ASET), said isolated actions taken by the administration to improve student life do not always constitute a comprehensive improvement for the graduate student community.

“Plain old requests won’t do it,” Ramsey said, asserting that a union would force administrators to “act on issues and meet with [students] in a way that they won’t otherwise.”

Without a union and a contract, Ramsey said, the administration can change policy with regard to the students’ employment without prior discussion with TAs.

He cited an example when, a year and half ago, drama TAs received a wage increase, but at the same time, their workload nearly doubled.

Effectively, Ramsey said, their wage “didn’t go up in real terms.”

Ramsey said unionization would actually benefit the University in the long run and provide better-quality instruction for undergrads.

The grad student unionization movement began during the 2001-02 academic year in hopes of brokering a contract with the University ensuring a minimum stipend across departments, healthcare coverage, and a say in decision-making.

Students had been encouraged to start the process by a ruling by the NLRB holding that students at New York University (NYU) had the right to unionize.

The NLRB, composed of five members appointed by the U.S. president, is responsible for interpreting the National Labor Relations Act, legislation that enables private employees to unionize and fight for wage and benefit reform.

This summer, the NLRB reversed itself in a controversial – and some say partisan – decision regarding students at Brown University.

At Tufts, the unionization process had been stalled for nearly two years since the Tufts administration impounded a unionization vote, appealing its legitimacy pending approval from the NLRB.

Little exchange appears to be occurring between the parties, however. “I don’t see much dialogue,” Ramsey said. “I don’t see the University addressing issues of stipends and healthcare in a meaningful and comprehensive way.”

Kanarek said Ramsey and other pro-union students had not approached her about any of their concerns. “He doesn’t seem to want to talk to me,” Kanarek said of Ramsey. “I wish he would. I would be really pleased to talk about a lot of these issues.”

While many graduate students at Tufts support unionization, there are others who do not. The GSC has maintained neutrality on the issue since it first arose three years ago.

According to Pavlick, this neutrality is a result of the GSC’s desire to represent all Tufts graduate students, not only those who support unionization.

“As a council we decided that, as the representative body of Tufts grad students in Arts, Sciences and Engineering, it was in the best interest of all if we take no stance on the issue,” Pavlick said in the e-mail. “The GSC’s mission is to represent all ASE graduate students.”

Because only some graduate students receive stipends from the University, those who do not would not be considered employees if a union were established at Tufts, and would therefore not be eligible for union membership.

“As a union necessarily only represents those it classifies as employees, the GSC has chosen instead to work for the interest of all graduate students rather than a select body,” she said.

According to Pavlick, the GSC works with the University to try to “to increase student funding and availability of benefits,” she said. “We take a realistic approach to this, each year evaluating where change is most opportune and working with administrators and trustees to bring about this change.”

Many had hoped that the NYU case was the first step in a trend towards unionization nationwide, and efforts towards unions, still in progress, were continuing at other universities, including Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale.

The NLRB overturn of the NYU case stalled this progress, perhaps permanently. And perhaps unjustifiably, say critics, who assert that the change in the board’s ruling was due to partisanship.

Risa Lieberwitz, a professor of labor law at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and former field attorney in the NLRB, said the decision was indeed political – the board was split along party lines and it overturned itself after two new members were appointed by the Bush administration.

The new Republican appointees, she said, had “a very different view of how to interpret the National Labor Relations Act – they viewed the law in a way that was consistent with the pre-NYU decisions,” she said.

Such a reversal was not unexpected, she said, due to the NLRB’s reputation as a highly-political body.

“It’s not unusual to see decisions overturned,” Lieberwitz said. “The controversial nature of labor issues and the political nature of NLRB appointments can lead to a lack of stability in NLRB precedents.”

Kimberly Johnson, who worked as a graduate student volunteer during the NYU unionization campaign, said the NYU union has been successful in the eyes of TAs there.

“It’s been pretty awesome.” Johnson said that departments’ stipends have increased to $18,000 per year from as low as $10,000.

“It made a huge difference.”

Annual wage increases, healthcare coverage, and office space were other gains Johnson cited as a result of the contract – as well as a newfound and unexpected solidarity among students.

“Moving outside of the department really built a kind of community that wasn’t there before,” she said. “In order to win we actually had to go out and talk to everybody.”

Efforts towards unionization, Johnson said, are still continuing in private universities nationwide.

“The decision means [universities] can’t have an NLRB election – it doesn’t mean people can’t organize themselves and pressure people enough to form a union,” she said. “NYU didn’t have to strike to do that, we had hoped that by changing the law that people wouldn’t have to do that.”

“Most universities did it through striking and a lot of direct action, and that is what is left to us,” Johnson said.

More coverage on graduate student life concerns and efficacy of unionization will follow next week.



Oct. 2000 – <$>NLRB recognizes NYU grad students’ dual status as students and employees, legitimizing their vote on unionization

April 2001 – <$>NYU administrators agree to bargain with the graduate student union

Nov. 2001 – <$>Grad students begin their push for unionization begins at Tufts University

April 2002 – <$>Tufts students vote on unionization; votes are impounded because Tufts appeals the vote to the NLRB on the grounds that its graduate students are not technically employees

Jan. 2004 – <$>President Bush appoints two conservatives, Michael J. Bartlett, director of labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and William B. Cowen, principal attorney for Institutional Labor Advisors LLC, to the NLRB

Jul. 2004 – <$>NLRB rules that Brown students should be recognized as employees and therefore are ineligible to hold a vote on unionization.<$>