As many as 4,000 Yale University graduate students are set to vote Wednesday and Thursday on whether to unionize, as labor organizing at private colleges heats up in the wake of Democrats regaining control of the National Labor Relations Board.
In November alone, unions won elections to represent student workers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Barnard College, filed a petition to represent 3,500 students at Northwestern University, and received an election date for a 3,000-student bargaining unit at Boston University that will vote next week.
The flurry of NLRB activity is evidence that university students working as teaching and research assistants are now reaping the benefits of an Obama-era decision that gave them organizing rights under federal labor law.
The labor board’s 2016 Columbia University ruling initially appeared to be a boon to organized labor, with graduate assistants unionizing at Harvard University in the wake of the decision. But several prominent unions withdrew representation petitions at the NLRB in 2018 out of concern that the Trump board would strike that precedent down if given the chance.
Unions continued to organize on campuses even as they stayed away from the Republican-controlled labor board. The American Federation of Teachers found alternative routes to campus unionizing, winning non-NLRB elections at Brown University and Georgetown University.
Unions returned to the NLRB after Democrats took the board majority in 2021. Graduate student assistants at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Fordham University, and Clark University voted to unionize in early 2022.
Perhaps no issue illustrates partisan vacillation at the NLRB better than student assistant organizing rights.
The board has flip-flopped multiple times depending on which party has a majority on the board, with Democrats supporting student assistants’ right to unionize and Republicans saying they aren’t employees under the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRB gave student assistants organizing rights in 2000, took them away in 2004, and reinstated them in the Columbia ruling.
“We’re now seeing graduate assistants take advantage of Columbia,” said William Herbert, a lecturer at Hunter College-City University of New York.
Most schools have stopped contesting whether student assistants can form unions, so litigation hasn’t slowed the path to elections on college campuses, said Herbert, the executive director of Hunter’s National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.
Unite Here Local 33 previously won a set of elections to represent several Yale academic departments as separate bargaining units before pulling the petitions to avoid the Trump board ruling on the university’s appeal.
The union was able to move quickly to an election following the flip of partisan control at the NLRB. The in-person voting will take place a little over a month after the union filed its Oct. 24 representation petition.
“I want a union so that we have real grievance procedures and can address unsafe working conditions without fear of retaliation,” graduate researcher Chris Camp said in a statement when the petition was filed. “No one should fear that their relationship with their mentor could be jeopardized.”
Yale is honoring the student assistants’ request to hold a secret ballot election to decide whether a majority wants union representation, said university spokeswoman Karen Peart. Yale Provost Scott Strobel has encouraged students to “take an active role in weighing the issues involved in unionization,” she said.
The NLRB won’t announce the results of the election until Jan. 9. Although most graduate students will vote in person, the agency will accept ballots from the small number voting by mail until Jan. 6.
The uptick in union activity at private colleges comes as 48,000 unionized academic workers at the University of California system enter the third week of their strike for higher pay and better benefits. A quarter of those workers reached a tentative deal on higher wages, but will remain on strike in solidarity with those who aren’t covered by the proposal.
Although labor rights at public universities are determined by state law and aren’t affected by the Columbia decision, the massive strike at the UC system has had a spillover effect across workers in higher education, said Todd Wolfson, a Rutgers professor and vice-president of the union representing graduate student workers, postdoctoral associates, and faculty at the university.
“They exist in the same ecosystem,” said Wolfson, who also serves as the interim chair of Higher Ed Labor United, an organization that formed in 2021. “The strike is absolutely an object lesson and it mobilizes people. It’s part of the larger wave of worker militancy that’s impacting higher education.”
Academic workers are also closely watching the broader unionizing wave ongoing at high-profile companies like
Starbucks baristas share similarities with graduate students, museum curators, digital journalists, video-game programmers, Capitol Hill staffers, and other educated workers who are organizing to improve pay and working conditions, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian who directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California-Santa Barbara.
“It’s not workers at Walmart and McDonald’s,” he said. “The strata of workers in motion are made up of college-educated aspiring professionals who’ve found their career prospects are unsteady and their real standard of living has stagnated. Every generation has different strata that are in the vanguard.”