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Graduate Students’ Right to Unionize on Private Campuses

April 13, 2010

New NLRB Appointments Raise Hopes of Graduate Employees

Repost from AFT FACE Online

Tuesday, 13 April 2010
President Obama took advantage of Congress’s spring recess to fill 15 important positions that Republican senators have blocked for an average of 214 days. Two of those appointments were Craig Becker and Mark Pearce to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Highly qualified and respected labor lawyers, Becker and Pearce were nominated in July and received Senate Judiciary approval, but Senate Republicans blocked final approval. After health care reform passed, labor activists flooded the White House with calls, says the AFL-CIO, begging the president to act. The NLRB, a five-member board, has been below capacity for over two years and was down to only two members under Obama. It has a backlog of hundreds of cases. Even before, during the Bush years, the board has been decidedly pro-business and anti-union.

One group that is holding out high hopes for the new board is graduate employees at private universities. In 2004, the Bush board overturned precedent and ruled that graduate employees at Brown University (and by extension, at all private universities) were students, not employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act, and they did not have the right to bargain. However, as reported in Inside Higher Ed , NLRB chair Wilma Liebman gave remarks before an April 12th gathering of union and management labor experts that alluded to her dissenting opinion in the Brown case (check out our January 2009 video post in which she discusses her dissenting opinions) and indicated that the new board just needs the right case to come before it to reconsider and possibly change the 2004 ruling.

The grad employee unions are “buzzing,” says Heidi Lawson, president of the Graduate Employees’ Organization at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “We think there’s a very good chance that we’ll be able to get the Brown decision overturned with these new appointments,” she says. “I know that there are several organizing campaigns that have been considering filing cases with the Board, including the University of Chicago.”

The appointments signal a long-overdue shift, AFT president Randi Weingarten says, “whereby workers, and not just bosses, will receive equal consideration in crucial matters such as labor disputes and elections. Giving voice to workers is good for the country. The anti-worker bias of President Bush’s labor appointments effectively deprived American workers and labor unions of fair hearings by the NLRB and other important bodies.”

Still, adds Lawson, “NLRB decisions are only as permanent as their Board composition. It would be nice to get a federal statute passed protecting graduate employees’ right to organize so that we don’t need to worry about a new NLRB overturning a favorable ruling again sometime in the future.”

Employee Free Choice Act anyone?

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