Information compiled by the GradSchools.com team - last updated December 2010
The idea of graduate student assistants in the United States forming unions in order to be able to participate in collective bargaining is nothing new, but the issue is heating up once again. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate research assistants at SUNY and CUNY Research Foundations are to receive collective bargaining rights due to the fact that they have what the NLRB calls "a primarily economic and not a primarily educational relationship with their employer."
The movement for the unionization of graduate student researchers dates back to 1969 when University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate students won union status. After a general lull in the movement and a few scattered decisions by the NLRB, the momentum picked up once more in 2000. At that time, New York University graduate students involved in teaching, grading papers and conducting research were given permission by the NLRB to unionize.
The issue of unionization for graduate students who serve as teaching and research assistants has long been the subject of hot debate. Union representatives contend that graduate assistants are employees of the institutions they serve and thus deserve collective bargaining rights. However, faculty and administration at educational institutions counter that the graduate assistants are first and foremost students, and that their responsibilities do not warrant the right to collective bargaining.
Unionization is once more a heated issue because increasing numbers of graduate students are serving as teaching and research assistants at colleges and universities. In addition, more and more graduate students are becoming faculty members. Union and student groups argue that grad students are used by universities as cheap labor, and when it comes to being treated as teachers and researchers, they receive the same amount of responsibility, but are not compensated as much as the professors.
The academic job market is increasingly competitive, and grad student assistants want to unionize in order to enhance job stability. Unionizing would also force educational institutes to recognize the precarious situation the grad student assistants face. Since graduate student employment is governed by states, graduate assistant unionization advocate groups must fight their own battles state-by-state. Some groups have forged partnerships with the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association and American Association of University Professors.
Educational institution administrators and faculty have taken positions against the unionization of graduate student assistants. Administrators do not believe graduate students are entitled to unionization and its benefits, as they work for the institutions as part of their training for a degree or through financial aid packages.
Administrators also fear that unionization would do more harm than good. For example, graduate student assistant unionization could lead to strikes and interruptions in the educational process. They are also concerned that it could harm student/university relations, and that paying graduate student assistants could cause tuition hikes.
Faculty members are concerned about the same issues as the administrators. They also fear that rivalries will erupt between faculty and students if graduate student assistants are allowed to unionize. Faculty members are concerned that the camaraderie that exists within the faculty could suffer. They are also wary of the possibility that the faculty members could become less valuable and lose some of their responsibilities.
Despite the substantial differences in opinion regarding the unionization of graduate student assistants, the NLRB decisions in the cases of SUNY and CUNY are victories for the institutions' research centers. The research centers argue that although the assistants they employ are students, the work the students perform at the centers do not result in grades or degrees. They are quick to distinguish between the academic and economic relationships the student assistants have forged with the institutions.
Unionization has its positive and negative aspects, and the future of the movement is still to a large extent undetermined. While some may believe that the mentoring relationship between professor and grad student that often results from unionization makes the process worth it, others will argue that the negative consequences outweigh such intangible benefits. It is likely that the Research Foundations at SUNY and CUNY will serve as a kind of test case for the right of graduate student assistants to unionize.