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SUGSE progresses unionization election

Boston College, UChicago, Yale, Penn grad students strategically withdraw petitions to unionize

Various graduate student union groups have withdrawn their petitions to unionize amid personnel changes at the National Labor Relations Board. But at the University, Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees and the University continue to negotiate a pre-election agreement for graduate student unionization.

“Unions (at other universities) have made a strategic decision to withdraw their petitions, … so that they avoid the risk of a decision by the (NLRB) that would overturn their right to organize,” said Provost Richard Locke P’18.

On the University’s campus, SUGSE — which already has the minimum support necessary to prompt an election, according to its card campaign —  plans to file for an election with the NLRB once the pre-election agreement is finalized, said Lubabah Chowdhury GS, a member of SUGSE.

The composition of the NLRB has affected the ruling on whether graduate students are employees — which would allow them to unionize — said William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions. Currently, two Democrats appointed by former President Barack Obama and two Republicans appointed by President Trump sit on the NLRB, while one more board member — nominated by Trump — is waiting for Senate confirmation, Herbert added. This Trump-era board has already reversed labor-friendly rulings made by the Obama-era board, according to a Huffington Post article.

The political affiliations of the board members have led to repeated changes in the NLRB’s rulings, Herbert said. In a 2016 case, for example, the board “ruled in Columbia University that graduate student employees are employees (under federal law)” entitled to collective bargaining rights, “overturning a prior decision in Brown University” that ruled in 2004 that graduate students are not employees under federal law, Herbert said.

Even with the flux at the NLRB, SUGSE and the University are still working on an agreement that will lead to SUGSE filing for an election on whether to unionize, Chowdhury said.

Though Locke said the University will respect whatever NLRB ruling is in effect, Chowdhury expressed concern with this stance. The University “puts us in a very precarious position because if the ruling is overturned, does that mean you won’t respect our voices?” Chowdhury said. “It would be great if we could get language in this (pre-election) agreement that would guarantee (administrative) compliance with the democratic will of the graduate student body.”

It is unclear if a change in the NLRB’s ruling would affect whether the University respects the outcome of an election. “If it’s a fair and free election and the graduate students vote for it, we have said that we would recognize that decision and … see if we can work on a collective bargaining agreement,” Locke said.

The University has met with SUGSE to draft the pre-election agreement since the start of the fall semester, Locke said. Two drafts of the agreement have been reviewed both this semester and last semester, but the two parties have yet to reach an agreement. 

“We could have had a pre-election agreement last semester,” Chowdhury said. “They’ve taken a long time to get back to us.” A pre-election agreement is not part of the NLRB procedure for unionization, but SUGSE sees the agreement as necessary to ensure the University respects the results of the election, she added.

Lawyers at the American Federation of Teachers — the union that graduate students voted to affiliate with — and the University’s external counsel, Proskauer Rose LLP, wrote the most recent draft of the agreement, Locke said. But “most of the things we had talked about for a couple of months suddenly weren’t in (the agreement),” Locke said. “We were almost going back to square one,” he added.

Given that the Republican-controlled Senate will likely confirm someone less friendly to unionization, which would give the Trump appointees a majority on the NLRB, many graduate student groups have decided to withdraw their unionization petitions.

“We didn’t want to put (the decision) in the hands of a group that at this point we know leans away from labor,” said Bryn Spielvogel, a graduate student at Boston College and member of the Boston College Graduate Employees Union that decided to withdraw its petition. Although the administration at Boston College opposes unionization, the Graduate Employees Union will seek voluntary recognition of the union from its administration, Spielvogel said.

Other groups at universities such as the University of Chicago, Penn and Yale have made similar decisions to withdraw their petitions in the last few months. In a statement on its website, Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago wrote in February that the withdrawal was made “to prevent the University of Chicago from using the Trump administration to overturn the Columbia precedent.”

New York University is the only private university to have recognized a graduate student union, though the unions already exist at public universities such as the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, since the law is different for the public sector, Herbert said.

Most recently, Georgetown University, whose administration had opposed unionization, decided to let graduate students hold an election on unionization overseen by a third party, not the NLRB, according to the Washington Post.

“I don’t see people being swayed by what other grad worker unions are deciding to do,” Chowdhury said of graduate students at the University. “SUGSE’s goal is to ratify an agreement that will allow for a free and fair election … outside of Trump’s influence and outside of administrative influence as well.”

“Brown has been different from the other universities,” Locke said. “We have not only not engaged in an anti-union campaign, but we have also said we would respect the August 2016 (Columbia) decision as long as it remains the rule.”

This is a “crucial moment because the law is in our favor,” Chowdhury said.


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