NLRB plans to permanently ban college teaching assistants from unionizing
Trump's NLRB is picking a fight with graduate students. | Bebeto Matthews/AP

Princeton University teaching assistant and research assistant Hrishikesh Somayaji has a very simple message for the National Labor Relations Board: The nation’s research assistants and teaching assistants need a union so they can do their jobs, and do them well.

“We simply need a union to be able to bargain for the rights that we deserve as workers, so that we can do what we came here to do, which is to perform great research and contribute to the span of human knowledge and accomplishment. We can’t do this otherwise,” Somayaji wrote to the board, which is considering taking those rights away.

Somayaji’s not the only one: In the first few days since the NLRB released its proposal on Oct. 24, 1, 541 other RAs and TAs nationwide also already formally protested, as has one union organizer of the RAs and TAs  – and that number of protests is sure to grow.

They’ve got a lot to protest about.

Since 2000, the NLRB has swung back and forth about whether the tens of thousands of private university RAs and TAs can unionize. Democratic board majorities called them “employees” under labor law and said “yes.” GOP majorities called them “students,” called stipends financial aid, and said “no.”

That’s what the Trump-named GOP board majority wants to do again, but with a big difference: it wants to set the organizing ban into stone, by making it a federal rule with the force of law.

And that would permanently harm the private university RAs and the TAs and bar unions – notably the Auto Workers, the Teachers and in Chicago, the Teamsters – from organizing them.

The RAs and TAs have been open to organizing, given the low pay, lack of benefits, no tenure or job security and lousy working conditions – doing most of the teaching at the nation’s universities – they endure.

The board majority, in its Federal Register notice, appears to brush that aside. It says the RAs and TAs are at the universities to learn, not to work. That means they’re students, not “employees” and can’t organize.

“Students who perform services at a private college or university related to their studies will be held to be primarily students with a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university, and therefore not statutory employees,” the GOP majority declared. It set a comment deadline of Nov. 22.

“For example, students who assist faculty members with teaching or research generally do so because those activities are vital to their education; they gain knowledge of their discipline,” the GOP contends. And RAs and TAs’ stipends are financial aid, not pay.

The RAs and TAs disagree with the board majority’s view of their jobs. So did the National Employment Law Project, which sounded the alarm about the NLRB majority’s scheme, as did AFT, the Jewish Labor Committee, the Economic Policy Institute, and the Service Employees. In so many words, the RAs and TAs said, “We do most of the work.”

“My work includes planning and teaching discussion sections and seminars, meeting with students one on one about their writing, and grading papers and exams,” Mie Inouye, a sixth-year graduate teacher in political science at Yale, explained.

“At Yale and many other research universities, most of this work is done by graduate students and adjunct faculty. We are obviously employees of the university; we do work that keeps the university running. As a result, we have the right to collective bargaining about the conditions of our work,” she continued.

Unionizing not only would help in pay, benefits, and tenure protections, but it would also battle discrimination on the job, Inouye told the board.

“In my department, I am one of a relatively small number of people of color. Many people of color in the department find our research interests and experiences in academia are not reflected in the department’s hiring and research priorities. Students of color have also experienced discrimination and harassment from other students and faculty.”

“When this happens, there is very little recourse. If we were able to form a union, we could create a grievance procedure that would take the pressure off of individual students to address discrimination and harassment in our workplace.”

“Graduate students should be legally recognized as employees as they provide irreplaceable labor that allows modern universities to run,” wrote Hannah Scupham, who’s taught writing and research methods to at least 250 University of Kansas undergrads. “Without my labor as an employee, the students… would not have learned the basic skills required.”

“Graduate student work brings universities prestige, enrollment and tuition dollars from undergraduate students, grant and award money, and lucrative patents. For this work graduate workers are paid wages by their employer, the university, and pay taxes on those wages as employees of the university,” Scupham added.

“I am a union organizer who has had the pleasure of helping graduate workers build their unions and I can say with absolute certainty that they are workers,” wrote organizer Hope Asya, who did not identify the union she works for.

“Students don’t agonize over opaque appointment policies because they’re afraid they won’t be able to pay the rent if they don’t have a class to teach.”

“Students might teach an introductory course in their department for the experience once, but the same course every semester for years at a time? That’s just a job.”

“Graduate workers are workers and any effort to strip their rights as such is a naked political handout to employers at the expense of workers,” Asya concluded.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.