While unrecognized graduate student union Local 33 remains mired in labor court disputes with Yale, the student unions at Harvard and Columbia have both held elections and are now confronting legal obstacles of their own.
After a successful union vote at Columbia last month, administrators filed a series of objections with the National Labor Relations Board, arguing that union organizers violated election-day regulations. And at Harvard, the outcome of a mid-November election remains uncertain, as union organizers and university officials debate whether certain voters were eligible to cast ballots.
The legal uncertainty surrounding the elections at Harvard and Columbia — and the ongoing labor court dispute at Yale — plays into the hands of university administrators, labor experts say. With President-elect Donald Trump set to take office on Friday, the composition of the NLRB is likely to become more conservative in the coming months and years, which could lead to the reversal of last August’s controversial decision that gave graduate students at private universities the right to unionize.
“The longer this plays out, the better the university’s position is,” said William Gould, a professor of labor law at Stanford and a former chairman of the NLRB. “That’s true as a general proposition. It works particularly well for the employer in the current political environment.”
In November, the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers became the first student union to hold labor elections in the wake of the August decision. But the excitement of that historic moment soon drained away: Nearly two months later, Harvard and the HGSU-UAW are still locked in legal disputes over the eligibility of more than 300 voters. Last month, the NLRB released a preliminary vote count suggesting that the majority of eligible students voted against unionization at Harvard. But the labor board did not confirm the outcome of the vote, because the number of contested ballots remained greater than the deciding margin — 1,456 in opposition to 1,272 in support of unionization.
“We believe that the challenged ballots contain a significant amount of support for the union,” said Sam Klug, a union organizer at Harvard. “I’m still confident in our ability to win this election.”
The NLRB is scheduled to hold a hearing on Feb. 21 to review the challenged ballots. It may also address an objection to the preliminary vote count filed by the HGSU-UAW, which claims that Harvard provided an incomplete list of eligible voters to the labor board ahead of the election. In theory, the NLRB could call for a second union election to be held.
Meanwhile, the graduate student union at Columbia has enjoyed greater success at the polls. In December, the Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers — the union whose organizing efforts led to the NLRB’s August decision — won its election by an overwhelming margin of nearly 1,000 votes.
But on Dec. 19, Columbia filed a series of objections with the NLRB and called for the labor board to hold a second vote. The university alleged that union members were illegally stationed within 100 feet of polling locations and “improperly coerced a substantial portion of eligible voters.” The NLRB has scheduled a hearing on the matter for Jan. 23.
The delays at Columbia and Harvard have raised concerns among union supporters who fear that Trump’s appointees to the NLRB will move quickly to reverse the August decision. Last month, Dan Bowling, a labor expert at Duke School of Law, told the News that the election of Trump put the decision “on the endangered species list.”
“It’s disappointing, but it’s completely aligned with all [Columbia’s] other tactics that have the goal of delaying the democratic process at every step,” said Olga Brudastova, a union organizer at Columbia, referring to the post-election objections. “If they choose to wait for the new administration and new NLRB appointees, then they choose to align with the wrong side of history.”
In an email to students and faculty earlier this month, Columbia Provost John Coatsworth defended the university’s actions, writing that “rules must be scrupulously observed by all parties if we are to reach fair outcomes.”
Still, Gould said the legal delay, which often makes employees disillusioned and frustrated, is always in the interests of employers who oppose unionization. And the prospect that the Trump administration will move the NLRB to the right gives the likes of Harvard and Columbia extra incentive to delay unionization for as long as possible, said Gould.
In recent years, the NLRB has made regulatory changes designed to curtail employers’ ability to delay the bargaining process after successful union elections. But according to Gould, employers can still simply refuse to negotiate with union representatives, leading to unfair labor practice proceedings that often take months or years to be adjudicated.
Moreover, the legal delays at Harvard, Columbia and Yale — where graduate student union organizers remain locked in legal disputes with Yale — have emboldened student critics of unionization who fear that labor negotiations would just add to the strain of academic life.
Jae Hyeon Lee, a graduate student who has led the anti-union opposition at Harvard, said the weeks since the election have made him even more skeptical about the ability of a union to resolve conflicts with administrators.
“There are cases where formal resolutions are necessary, but they can be complicated and take a long time,” Lee said. “In most cases, resolving conflicts through informal means is better.”
At Yale, the Graduate Student Assembly voted last October to oppose Local 33 in its effort to hold elections in nine separate academic departments. According to GSA Chairman Nicholas Vincent GRD ’17, the legal delays have come as a relief to graduate students who hope to finish their studies before the effects of a potential union would be felt.
“For people in their later years, there’s this underlying assumption that it’s going to take a while,” said Vincent, who added that even if Local 33 holds successful union elections, the bargaining process with Yale could be “very drawn out.”
It remains unknown when NLRB Regional Director John Walsh will reach a decision in the Yale-Local 33 case. Still, Local 33 Chairman Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 expressed optimism about the future of graduate student unionization at Yale, citing the recent contract agreement between the University and Local 34 and Local 35, its two unions representing service, clerical, technical and maintenance workers.
“We remain hopeful that the Yale administration will choose not to align itself with the anti-labor Trump administration and will work productively with Local 33 in the way they’re working with Locals 34 and 35,” Greenberg said. “When there’s so much to gain by working together, why would the Yale administration choose to fight us?”