Harvard Files Amicus Brief in Graduate Student Unionization Case

The University argues that the relationship between graduate students and universities should remain academic, not managerial, and student labor unions would “damage private sector graduate education.”

Harvard and eight peer universities filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Monday urging the board not to require private universities to recognize graduate-student labor unions. The brief argues that the relationship between graduate students and universities should remain academic, not managerial, and that requiring universities to recognize student labor unions “would significantly damage private sector graduate education in this country.” 

Harvard joined Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth College, MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale on the brief. Columbia University, the only Ivy League school that did not participate, is directly involved with a case now before the NLRB that could overturn existing precedent and force private universities to recognize labor unions formed by graduate students. The National Right to Work and Legal Defense Foundation, a conservative organization that opposes mandatory union membership, also filed a brief against student unionization in the case. 

“Both collective bargaining and arbitration are, by their very nature, adversarial,” the brief filed by Harvard and peer schools argues. “They clearly have the potential to transform the collaborative model of graduate education to one of conflict and tension.” The brief also maintains that nothing has changed, legally or circumstantially, that should call for a change in the NLRB’s position on graduate-student unionization.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students separately filed amicus briefs urging the NLRB to grant graduate students collective bargaining rights. “Throughout the American economy, employers and their lawyers are devising methods to manage labor forces performing the company's core services while avoiding the legal responsibilities inherent in the employment relationship,” the AAUP's brief argues. “The fact that graduate student assistants have an educational relationship with the university does not mean they are not also employees when performing the work of teaching or research for which they are paid.” 

The case’s outcome hinges on whether graduate students engaged in teaching and research should be considered students who complete teaching appointments as part of their academic training, or employees with collective bargaining rights. The NLRB ruled in the former direction in a 2004 case involving Brown, overturning a 2000 decision that had granted graduate students collective bargaining rights. The board agreed to consider the question again last year, in cases involving Columbia and the New School, and is widely believed likely to rule in favor of employee status.

In a message to faculty, Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote, “The decisions in these cases would affect graduate students at Harvard and at every private university. We believe that graduate students join a university as students, not as employees.”

The case comes amid movements to form student labor unions at Harvard, Yale, and other prominent universities. The Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU) has gathered signatures in favor of unionizing from a majority of graduate students whom they consider workers—those who teach or work in labs as part of their degree programs.

“I'm hopeful that the NLRB will make the right choice and restore graduate workers’ collective bargaining rights,” said HGSU organizer Sam Klug, a doctoral candidate in history. “We're not surprised, but we are disappointed that Harvard chose to file this brief, and we're disappointed that the Harvard administration is standing against the majority of graduate student employees who have expressed their desire to form a union.”  

HGSU organizers argue that students deserve to have a voice in University decisions that affect them, and that an academic relationship with the university is not mutually exclusive of a labor relationship. They also suggest that a union contract would benefit both students and the University by creating clear expectations and working conditions. “A contract would create baselines and standards that can only improve the health of the relationship [between students and faculty], so that you can focus on academic issues,” HGSU organizer Aaron Bekemeyer, a doctoral candidate in history, said in an interview.  

New York University (NYU) is the only private university to voluntarily recognize a student labor union. Harvard’s amicus brief cites the example of NYU, arguing that student unionization there “demonstrates the burdensome and disruptive effect such bargaining has on graduate education.” NYU's union has filed grievances concerning the selection of teachers for particular courses, which, the brief argues, undermined the university's ability to make academic decisions. NYU’s union also has been cited by HGSU, which argues that collective bargaining has helped graduate students there secure better pay and benefits.

Should the NLRB grant employee status to graduate students, the University’s brief maintains, the status of doctoral candidates ought to be considered separately from that of master’s and college students in teaching and research positions. “Few private sector institutions would be inclined to make these opportunities available if they were accompanied by an obligation to bargain about such things as workload or financial aid,” the brief says. 

Read more coverage of the movement to form a graduate student labor union at Harvard, and recent changes to graduate student benefits. 

Read more articles by: Marina N. Bolotnikova

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