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A New Push to Organize Graduate Students at Private Colleges and Universities? Four Major Unions Announce a Coalition on Higher Ed Organizing

Labor & Employment Publications

On March 14, 2018, leaders from the Service Employees International Union, the United Auto Workers, the American Federation of Teachers, and UNITE HERE announced a new coalition to organize graduate students at private universities. Each union will contribute money, political connections, and membership to support organizing efforts at private universities.

As we previously reported, in 2016, the Obama-era National Labor Relations Board (Board) issued a decision at Columbia University that paved the way for graduate students to unionize at private higher education institutions. Unions now fear that the current Republican-controlled Board will overturn that ruling and have decided to band together and pursue organizing efforts outside of the traditional Board election process.

The coalition first took collective action in February by withdrawing their representation petitions at Boston College, the University of Chicago, and Yale University. Unions had prevailed in Board elections among graduate students at those institutions, but each school had challenged the election results. Rather than risk a reversal of Columbia University, the coalition and graduate student workers recently notified Boston College, Yale University, University of Chicago, Columbia University, and Loyola University Chicago of its change in strategy away from the NLRB process and towards a negotiated contract with third-party assistance from, perhaps, the American Arbitration Association or the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

In light of the coalition’s stated objectives and strategy, organizing efforts directed at graduate students may not look the same as they have in the past. Private higher education institutions can expect less of the traditional organizing tactics that typically end in an NLRB election, and more public pressure to voluntarily recognize and negotiate with graduate student representatives outside the structure of federal labor law.

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