NAICU Washington Update

Hearing Looks at Both Sides of Graduate Student Unionization

September 26, 2012

A September 12 joint subcommittee hearing to examine the role of the National Labor Relations Board  in academe predictably broke along party lines - with Democrats defending the right to unionize, and Republicans questioning the NLRB's overreach.

The hearing by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce brought together the subcommittees on labor and higher education.  Its title "Expanding the Power of Big Labor:  The NLRB’s Growing Intrusion into Higher Education," was an early indicator that the conversation would be controversial. 

Central to the hearing were the underlying unionization principles at private colleges as expressed in previous cases:  the question of religious freedom, such as NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago (1979), and the nature of graduate student teaching established in the Brown University decision (2004).

Peter Weber, dean of the graduate school at Brown University, testified in defense of the principle, established in the Brown decision, that graduate students are essentially students and not employees.  In his testimony, Weber explained that teaching is part of every Brown graduate student’s educational program, and that their financial aid package doesn't vary whether they serve as a teaching assistant, take courses full time, or work on their own research. He pointed out that “There is no line designated 'salary'" in the school's student support budget.  

Weber also noted that it would be less expensive for Brown to hire experienced adjuncts for these teaching slots, than to train students, but that the university saw training to teach as an essential part of graduate education.

The question of NLRB authority over religious schools was articulated by Michael Mooreland, vice dean and professor of law at the Villanova University School of Law.  The major point Mooreland made in his testimony was that the issue was not about unionization rights.  Rather, he submitted, the key issue is whether the NLRB ‘s efforts to sort which institutions were "religious enough" to qualify for an exemption was in itself an inappropriate government intrusion into their religious missions.

Labor's view was presented by Christian Sweeney, deputy director of the AFL-CIO's organizing department.  His arguments centered on the traditional rights and needs of workers to organize to protect employee interests.  He also argued that the many public colleges with unionized graduate students had not suffered as a result.

Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.), the labor subcommittee chair, commented that, since public colleges had not lost quality as a result of unionization, he didn't buy the argument that “the crown jewel of American higher education would be tarnished if we have collective bargaining.”  Weber attempted to explain that the bargaining rights of public college's graduate student unions were limited by state laws, and that private colleges would not have the same protection.

Andrews cut him off, however, and asked him instead to come up with a single public college whose quality had suffered because of unionization.  He then went on to say that his quarrel was not with the witnesses, but with the Republicans for holding the hearing before the NLRB had acted - which he expected to happen “sometime in the next three months.”

In general, Republican committee members heaped praise on American universities, and defended academic freedom as an institutional strength essential to the nation.  They also drew a parallel between the NLRB’s efforts to apply a religious test to colleges and the Health and Human Services controversy over mandatory contraception coverage by religious colleges.

The NLRB hasn't issued any new rulings on graduate students' rights to organize at private colleges, but their requests for public comment hint that they may be looking at revising past rulings.

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