We’re not sure what can be done about it, but we regret the decision of the National Labor Relations Board that unionization of graduate students among private sector universities is now legal and a possibility.
The board — mostly Democrats — in a 3-1 decision ruled that there is no clear language in the National Labor Relations Act that would forbid teaching assistants from being classified as employees. The Board ruled that “they perform work at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated,” and therefore have the right to organize unions, the board’s majority said in its decision.
The NLRB has overall jurisdiction over union-organizing elections and referees in private sector workplace disputes. It doesn’t have jurisdiction over the public sector where a small portion of the roughly one million graduate students at public universities have been unionized for decades, generally covered by state law, not federal law. The new ruling came in response to a petition by the United Auto Workers Union’s free-swinging District 50 which has gone far beyond the bounds of its motorcar industry origins to expand unionization.
The petition asking for the new ruling – it reversed an earlier 2004 decision in regards to Brown University — from Columbia graduate students had drawn opposition from schools including Harvard University and Stanford University. The ruling could also cost schools millions of dollars in increased compensation.
But the universities’ administration opposition to the ruling in a joint legal brief, said collective bargaining in graduate programs could disrupt their ability to choose who would teach specific classes. The ruling rejects previous board decisions which argued whether teaching assistants should be seen primarily as students or employees; the majority decision now argued that they can be both.
Students deserve such protection when “they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated,” the board ruled. The decision will pose a challenge for some of the nation’s most prestigious universities, who opposed it, warning that a decision in favor of the students could disrupt colleges across the country by injecting collective bargaining into graduate programs and adding an additional expense burden.
Philip A. Miscimarra, the Board’s single dissenter, argued that his colleagues disregarded the enormous expense faced these days by many students to finance higher education. “Congress never intended that the [National Labor Relations Act] and collective bargaining would be the means by which students and their families might attempt to exercise control over such an extraordinary expense.”
It remains to be seen whether the universities will challenge successively the NLRB ruling in the courts for a reversal. Prolonged fights over NLRB nominees slowed down the process by which the board could rule. Other universities are expected to challenge the NLRB decision in court.
Our own objection to the decision goes much further toward what we feel is a far move important insidious current in American life. We see this action as another move toward “corporatism”, toward the representation of conflicting economic and political interests through a corporate entity. We do not call this fascism, of course, although it was the original ideological underpinning of 1930s Fascism in Italy which sought in a world of increasingly complicated industrial and societal relationships to substitute the power of an organized entity [a corporation], whether it be on the left [trade unions] or the right [industrial associations] for negotiating the more intricate personal relations than of an earlier time.
Nowhere in the whole scheme of life is the relationship between the individuals – the teacher and the pupil – more important than between teacher and student. To substitute for that relationship, a collective [corporation] is to our mind the worst sort of deterioration of that very complicated and somewhat mysterious process of teaching, learning and education. Would it not be possible to somehow increase what we acknowledge is the current undercompensation of the graduate student-tutor rather replace his personal relationship with his individual learner?