Should We Unionize the Grad Students?

On September 12, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing that focused on the subject of unionization of graduate students. Inside Higher ed covered the story.

Here is the issue. Private colleges and universities are subject to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which permits employees to seek to unionize through an election process overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. Employees can petition for the NLRB to hold an election and when at least 30 percent indicate their desire for an election, it will be scheduled. If more than half of the workers vote in favor of a union, it then becomes the exclusive representative of all the workers and the employer is legally compelled to bargain with union officials “in good faith.”

Labor unions have been steadily eroding except in the public sector for decades. Their political allies would like to see that decline reversed and are happy to help unions open up new “markets.” That is why the prospect of unionizing grad students appeals to Democrats, who receive almost all of the political support dished out by Big Labor.

Under the NLRA, which is vague as to just who is an “employee” and who is not, grad students are currently regarded as outside the definition. The NLRB, controlled by pro-union Democratic appointees, has held hearings meant to pave the way for change. As expected, the House committee hearing divided neatly along party lines.

I haven’t read the transcript of the hearing, but from the IHE piece and my experience with such hearings, I’m pretty sure that no one brought up the strongest objections to expanding unionization “rights” to grad students.

For one thing, unionization under the NLRA is nothing like a voluntary cooperative effort aimed at improving conditions. Once a union is voted in and certified, it has exclusive bargaining authority over all the workers. No individual is allowed to handle his own affairs any longer. Some grad students would probably like this collectivization, but others would find it abhorrent. Why should their freedom be trampled upon?

Moreover, a union vote is not like a political election. A union voted in today remains in place indefinitely. Grad students who enter school after a union has been certified won’t have any say about it unless they go through the rather difficult process of petitioning to decertify.

Nothing prevents grad students from getting together and arguing their case for better compensation or conditions without relying on federal coercion. That’s how we should leave it.

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George Leef

George Leef is Director of Research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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