Duke graduate students are preparing to unionize following a favorable ruling by the National Labor Relations Board.

The NLRB ruled Tuesday that “student assistants” at private universities are legally allowed to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act, overturning a prior 2004 decision denying such a right. The Duke Graduate Students Union—although not legally a union until it files with the NLRB and holds an election—held a gathering of about 30 people at the Duke Chapel and celebrated the victory. 

"I am painfully familiar with the plight of the graduate student expected to learn full-time, work full-time, teach full-time," said Christopher Shreve, a biology instructor. "You can't work three-full time jobs, you just can't."

A lengthy debate

The history of graduate student unionization has gone back and forth and has been contentious, said Daniel Bowling, a senior lecturing fellow at the Duke Law School. In 2000, he explained, the NLRB ruled in a case involving New York University that graduate students could unionize and go through collective bargaining.

That ruling was reversed, however, in a 2004 case involving Brown University. The 2004 board, which included several appointees of Republican President George W. Bush, revoked graduate students’ right to unionize.

The 2004 removal of unionization rights was motivated by asking “are you primarily an employee or a student,” Bowling said. If graduate student workers are deemed primarily students—as the 2004 Board decided—then they lose the protections of the NLRA, he explained.

With this new decision—in a case involving Columbia University—the board ruled that graduate student workers count as employees able to unionize, even if they are studying as well. Bowling added that the shift in policy was likely partisan.

“As to the latter point, this was a very predictable decision, in that the current Board makeup is dominated by Obama's appointees, who has made it a goal of his administration to expand coverage of the Act to more people,” he wrote in an email. “Plus, it is a close call from a legal standpoint, and not an outrageous overreach.”

Scott Barish, a Ph.D. student in cell and molecular biology and one of the union’s organizers, said the campaign has not yet spoken to administrators.

However, it plans to do so in the coming weeks, he noted. 

Issues they hope to address, Barish said, include a lack of dental care, improving child care for students with families, more transparency from the administration and a clear contract listing graduate students’ rights and responsibilities. 

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, took issue with the NLRB's ruling in a written statement.

"The NLRB decision doesn’t recognize the fact that students who engage in research and teaching as part of their programs of study are very different than employees," he wrote. "They are vital members of the academic community with quite different relationships to their professors than an employee has to a supervisor.  Duke has made significant investments in stipends, insurance and other benefits to enhance their educational experience, not for the purpose of hiring or retaining them as employees."

Bowling did offer a note of caution that, like the 2004 ruling being reversed, this new ruling could be re-examined in the future.

For example, should Donald Trump have two terms as president, he would eventually have heavy influence on the board, Bowling said. At the same time, Trump is less anti-union than most past Republican candidates, he explained.

Unions nationwide

According to The Atlantic, there are currently 31 officially recognized graduate student unions nationwide. Most, however, exist at public universities, which are covered by state law rather than NLRB decisions.

Graduate students at North Carolina public universities would be able to unionize, but not collectively bargain, Bowling explained.

New York University is one of the few private universities that has agreed to work with a graduate student union of its own accord, despite the prior lack of legal requirement.

Graduate students at NYU had a union from 2000 to 2005, a time period  in which graduate students were legally guaranteed unionization rights, said Maida Rosenstein, president of the Local 2210 union covering NYU graduate students. 

Once the 2004 NLRB ruling came into effect, however, she said the university refused to negotiate a new contract. Following a sustained public pressure campaign lasting until 2013, a new contract was reached.

“The union was really relentless,” she said. “We kept at it, even though at that point the law was against us.”

Barish noted that they were willing to try something similar at Duke had the NLRB decision not gone in their favor.

Benefits received by NYU graduate students after unionizing, Rosenstein said, included stipends raised by 38 percent, expanded health care coverage, the creation of a child care subsidy and the establishment of worker protections and dispute resolution procedures.

Nora Gimpel, an organizer for the Western Michigan University Teaching Assistants’ Union, a public union, shared a similar story. In an email, she wrote that base pay for graduate assistants has increased by $971, tuition credits increased by four credits a semester and a health care subsidy was created.

Next steps

Marcus Benning, Trinity '14 and president of the Graduate and Professional Student Council, wrote in an email that GPSC is not currently involved with the unionization efforts. He did, however, express support for increased attention to labor issues at the University. 

"Currently, GPSC is not directly involved in organizing students regarding this issue, but as all issues related to graduate students fall under our purview, GPSC will research the implications, consult all stakeholders and act in the best interests of the community," he wrote.

Barish said that the union is going to continue building support in the coming weeks and will formally file with the NLRB for a union election once it has enough support. 

The bargaining unit, he explained, would be focused primarily on doctoral students, but could also include other graduate students as long as they are being paid by Duke.