Alongside eight of its peer institutions, Yale filed an amicus brief on Monday to the National Labor Relations Board to argue against a pending Columbia University case on graduate student unionization.
The Columbia case, along with a similar one involving graduate students at The New School, could permit graduate students to form unions and bargain as employees of their universities. If the NLRB rules in favor of the graduate students, it would overturn a 2004 legal precedent in which the board ruled that Brown University graduate students were students, not employees. The decisions will have important implications for unionization efforts at universities nationwide, and parties on both sides of the issue have taken new steps to make their voices heard.
All Ivy League institutions, except for Columbia, collectively filed the brief with NLRB. An amicus brief, or “friend of the court” brief, can be filed with a court by any interested party.
“This is a strong, unified statement on behalf of America’s premier research universities,” Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Tamar Gendler said.
At a union rally held Monday at New Haven’s City Hall, Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 announced that the organization had submitted union authorization cards to Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen to determine whether GESO has reached a majority among the graduate student body. GESO’s submission of authorization cards is not legally binding because the cards can only officially be used by employees formally recognized by the NLRB.
“We are not waiting for the University to give us an election,” Greenberg said at the rally, noting that GESO has claimed support from a majority of graduate students on four separate occasions. “We have submitted our union authorization cards and have asked the attorney general of Connecticut, George Jepsen, to count those cards and certify that we have a majority.”
Universities, graduate student unionization movements and educational organizations nationwide have been paying close attention to the ongoing cases, and the joint brief by the nine universities is only one of several amicus briefs that have been submitted to the board on the Columbia case. The American Association of University Professors also filed an independent amicus brief on Monday arguing in support of graduate student unionization — a stance opposite to that taken by the nine universities.
In its amicus brief, the AAUP argued that graduate assistants are employees with collective bargaining rights and that these rights promote academic freedom and do not harm faculty-student mentoring relationships.
“Collective bargaining by both faculty and graduate assistants is one of several ways to promote academic freedom on campus, as it allows faculty, students, and administrators to discuss collectively how best to do their shared work of teaching and research,” the AAUP brief wrote. “Contractual guarantees to preserve individual academic freedom are an increasingly standard feature of graduate assistant collective bargaining agreements.”
University spokesman Tom Conroy told the News last week that Yale has never considered its graduate students employees. The joint brief reaffirms the University’s position.
“There is no compelling reason to reject the Brown decision,” the joint brief said. “There is no empirical evidence suggesting that [the Brown case] was wrongly decided.”
Not only did the brief argue that the Brown ruling should be upheld in the pending Columbia case, but it said that overturning the 2004 precedent would “impermissibly intrude” onto any school’s academic freedom.
Graduate student bargaining power has the potential to create burdensome and disruptive effects on students’ education, according to the brief. The brief also urges the NLRB to recognize graduate students the same way it already recognizes students pursuing master’s and bachelor’s degrees — not as employees. This standard should be kept for students doing research towards a Ph.D., the brief said, arguing against “false dichotomy between working and learning.”
Gendler said that as a professor and former Yale College undergraduate, she appreciates how problematic it would be for academic decisions to be subject to bargaining and labor governance procedures. She added that her faculty colleagues at New York University experienced problems when their graduate students unionized, which lead NYU to conclude that a graduate student union was detrimental to academic decision-making and the quality of graduate education.
Although teaching is an important part of being a graduate student, Gendler said teaching is only a segment of the whole graduate student experience. In a typical semester, more than 60 percent of all Yale doctoral students do no teaching at all, she said.
The brief also identifies differences between public and private institutions with regard to student unionization. It states that while public institutions may view graduate student compensation as an economic issue, private institutions treat student assistantships as educational opportunities and the two systems should not be subject to the same standards.
English professor David Bromwich ’73 GRD ’77 said the brief indicates some sources of possible conflict between the values of a university — such as diversity of thought and practice — and the interests of organized labor. He pointed out other differences between graduates students and service workers.
“Some of the differences can be gauged by comparing the way that time is spent in these two walks of labor and the amount of personal freedom involved in the work itself,” Bromwich said.
The brief also states that many graduate students work sporadically, stopping and starting work at different periods of their education. While previous cases on the issue have argued that these students should be guaranteed consistent employment by their schools, the brief argues that such intermittent work is natural for graduate students and that there is a “clear expectation that they will not continue in their roles, either because they will graduate, a course will end or for any of a myriad of other reasons.”
GESO was founded in 1990.
Noah Daponte-Smith contributed reporting.