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Democrat Proposes Bill to Protect Graduate Worker Unions (2)

Nov. 14, 2019, 5:05 PMUpdated: Nov. 14, 2019, 10:50 PM

Graduate student workers would be considered employees with the ability to unionize under federal labor law, according to a new bill Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan introduced Nov. 14.

The Wisconsin Democrat’s Respect Graduate Student Workers Act (no bill number) would block the National Labor Relations Board’s push to develop a regulatory proposal that would prevent graduate teaching assistants and other student workers at private universities and colleges from receiving federal protections that grant most private-sector workers the right to form or join a union.

The NLRB’s proposal would reverse its Obama-era decision in a 2016 case involving the Trustees of Columbia University in New York City and students at the university. The Pocan bill also would update the language of the National Labor Relations Act to prevent the board from pursuing any similar regulations.

“Graduate workers are a vital part of teaching and research in colleges and universities and should have an equal voice in that workplace,” Pocan said in a statement announcing the bill.

Grad Students Protest

Pocan’s introduction of the proposal comes the same day that thousands of graduate student workers across the country protested in front of NLRB headquarters against the board’s proposed rule. The students planned to deliver 25,000 comments on the proposal.

Students in New England also protested in front of Boston City Hall in Massachusetts. The protests were planned to include unions that represent more than 10,000 graduate workers: the American Federation of Teachers, the Service Employees International Union, the United Auto Workers, and Unite HERE. The SEIU and AFT endorsed Pocan’s bill.

The proposal is part of House Democrats’ larger legislative effort to revamp federal labor law and broaden legal protections for workers and unions. But Pocan’s bill, like other measures included in that effort, is unlikely to attract much attention in the Senate, where the Republican majority has widely resisted new legal obligations for employers.

The Democratic-majority House has already passed measures designed to fight pay discrimination (H.R. 7); prevent on-the-job bias against LGBT workers (H.R. 5); raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour (H.R. 582); and ban forced arbitration (H.R. 1423).

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (H.R. 2474), which the Education and Labor Committee approved Sept. 25, is also pending in the House. The measure would introduce massive changes to federal labor law.

The introduction of Pocan’s bill was first reported by Politico.

(Updates with further reporting on how Rep. Pocan's proposal would affect the National Labor Relations Act.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Jaclyn Diaz in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Lauinger at; Terence Hyland at