A recent National Labor Relations Board decision has grim implications for Local 33, Yale’s graduate student union.
The labor board has wasted no time reversing Obama-era rulings to loosen regulations on employers since it turned over to a Republican majority in September. And in one of three reversals last week, the NLRB voted along party lines to make it harder for employees to organize in so-called “micro units” within a larger group of employees. The NLRB is currently considering an appeal by Yale to block graduate students from unionizing in eight academic departments. And now, the labor board has rolled back its 2011 Specialty Healthcare decision, a controversial ruling that formed the legal basis for Local 33’s departmental elections.
“The implications of the board’s reversal are substantial,” former NLRB Chairman William B. Gould told the News. “I would think that the implications are that the board will reverse the departmental findings if they get to that. [But] it’s possible that there could be departmental units even independent of Specialty Healthcare, depending on a number of factors in determining what’s an appropriate unit.”
Graduate students in eight of Yale’s academic departments voted to unionize in February, a piecemeal approach untested at other universities but approved by a regional branch of the NLRB. The elections came six months after the federal labor board gave graduate students at private universities the right to unionize, in a case involving Columbia University. But despite Local 33’s departmental victories, Yale has refused to come to the negotiating table as it appeals the legal basis of the union elections to the NLRB.
The rollback of the Specialty Healthcare decision will work in Yale’s favor as the NLRB evaluates those appeals, said Dan Bowling, a labor expert at Duke School of Law.
“It won’t be determinative because the board will make a fact-based determination case by case,” he said. “But the standard of review now is much more favorable to Yale.”
The 3–2 decision to roll back Specialty Healthcare abolishes a standard that required employers hoping to block piecemeal unionization efforts to prove an “overwhelming community of interest” between members of a microunit and employees excluded from that unit. Local 33 used the Specialty Healthcare standard to argue in labor court in the fall of 2016 that students in different departments ought to unionize separately, while Yale contended that all graduate students share an “overwhelming community of interest.” The NLRB’s regional branch ultimately ruled in favor of Local 33, paving the way for the union’s departmental elections.
Asked to respond to the rollback of Specialty Healthcare, Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said the University is still reviewing the decision and that administrators continue to believe Local 33’s departmental elections were “inappropriate and unfair.” Local 33 Chair Aaron Greenberg ’18 and Co-Chair Robin Canavan ’19 did not respond to requests for comment.
According to Gould, the NLRB rolled back Specialty Healthcare at high speed, without allowing time for public input, amicus briefs and oral arguments, as it often does before making important decisions. He expressed concern that the NLRB rushed to overrule the Obama-era decision before the conservatives lose their majority this month with the expiration of Board Chairman Philip Miscimarra’s term.
But the “more fundamental issue” for Yale and Local 33 is whether the NLRB will reverse the Columbia decision, as well, Gould emphasized.
Now that the labor board is dominated by President Donald Trump’s anti-union appointees, Bowling said, graduate students might see their freshly minted right to unionize revoked with a reversal of the Columbia decision.
“The big picture is I don’t think [a ruling on micro units] is going to matter one way or the other,” Bowling said. “The Columbia ruling is on life support from what I’ve seen this week.”
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