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Seol '14: Setting a new precedent

Collective bargaining rights — the right of employees to cooperate to achieve agreements on issues such as wages, working hours, workplace safety and grievance mechanisms — have recently made headlines. Yet belying such mainstream media attention is a facet of collective bargaining rights that is far more relevant to many students' daily lives: the right of paid private University employees, including teaching or research assistants, to unionize.

In 2004, the National Labor Relations Board, which governs the collective bargaining rights of private graduate student employees in the United States, decided to deny the petition for 450 graduate students at Brown to unionize. In doing so, the NLRB reversed a prior ruling in 2000 that permitted graduate student worker unions at New York University. The NLRB decided in the Brown case that, because graduate students tend to spend more time on studies than on work, they count as students and are therefore not protected by employees' rights.

The logic in the Brown case is troubling because it justifies rights violations by arbitrary classification. Whether an individual is 20 percent student and 80 percent employee or 80 percent student and 20 percent employee seems a meager distinction upon which to deny collective bargaining rights — rights so fundamental that they are guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

To further highlight the arbitrariness present in the system, consider two hypothetical graduate students doing identical work as students and employees. One works at Brown, the other at the University of Rhode Island. As an employee of a public university, the latter is protected by state collective bargaining laws. Yet by attending a private institution, the former is denied the exact same rights. When the value of deontological arguments resides in their universal applicability, it seems intuitively unjust to allow such insignificant factors to distinguish between otherwise identical individuals.

More generally, collective bargaining rights exist as an extension of one's fundamental right to free speech. By the same logic that our Founding Fathers saw it necessary to guarantee "the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances," the right to collectively bargain allows workers to associate, thereby checking the power imbalances that exist in employer-employee relationships.

The ability of the union to mitigate abuses of power is particularly relevant to student employees. Whereas an employee of McDonald's might be able to quit and find employment at Wendy's, students, particularly those at private universities, cannot so easily switch schools. Thus, a uniquely coercive relationship is born. Not only do private institutions have, by virtue of high barriers to substitution, considerably more leeway in workplace abuses that would normally be solved by alternatives in other industries, but they also often require employment as a condition of enrollment. Students are left with no recourse.

The results can be devastating. A report by the Graduate Employees and Students Organization at Yale found that "70 percent of undergraduate teaching contact hours at Yale are performed by transient teachers: graduate teachers, adjunct instructors and other teachers not on the tenure track," and "transient teachers' lack of institutional support compromises the quality of educational experience they are able to provide." In the most extreme scenarios, for example, during finals at Yale in 1995, teaching assistants could go on strike, refusing to teach or grade. Time and again, undergraduates are caught in the crossfire and suffer incalculable damage to their education.

Recognizing collective bargaining rights for graduate student employees offers additional positive externalities for education as a whole. Most directly, the cessation of artificially cheap student labor would incentivize greater usage of professors in the classroom. Graduate students also have unique incentives as a result of their dual role as student and educator. Their perspective would be invaluable in balancing competing interests between the two on issues such as donor restrictions on research or intellectual property rights, which are often handled one-sidedly by tenured professors and school administrators. Yet without collective bargaining rights, their voices are simply ignored.

In April 2010, more than 1,000 NYU graduate students filed a petition against this very phenomenon. The decision by the acting director of the NLRB's New York office, released last summer, deferred to the 2004 Brown ruling and denied the petition, but criticized it as being "premised on a university setting as it existed 30 years ago." With particular regard to graduate students, the decision found that they "have a dual relationship with the employer that does not necessarily preclude a finding of employee status."

The Republican-dominated NLRB that adjudicated the Brown petition is no more, having in large part been replaced by President Obama's nominees. The language to once again set a new precedent is in place. The University should seek to set an example among private institutions and work with student unions. But it cannot create them alone. Our student employees must stand up for their rights to ensure a better educational system for all.

Young Seol '14 is a chemistry and economics concentrator from Iowa City, Iowa. He can be reached at j_young_seol@brown.edu.


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