Unionizing Student Assistants Places Students at Risk

by James Sherk

In a ruling that could disrupt many students’ educations, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled student assistants at private universities and colleges can unionize, collectively bargain over working conditions, and go on strike.

Legally, the Board held that student assistants are both students and employees as defined by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). As such, the Board determined they have the right to collectively bargain over their “employment” with universities.

Student assistants perform tasks at universities as part of their education. Many graduate programs require students to teach some undergraduate classes; a skill they will need if they become a professor. In other programs, students engage in research projects as part of their dissertation. These activities are essential to their education. The NLRB just held that stipends or tuition waivers given to students who do these tasks make them employees.

On its face, that ruling is ridiculous. The fact that colleges and universities defray some of graduate student’s education costs does not change their primarily educational nature. Congress wrote the NLRA to regulate private industry, not universities.

If the ruling withstands the inevitable court appeals, it will disrupt higher education and place students, including the unionized student assistants themselves, at considerable economic risk. Collective bargaining is an inherently adversarial process. If both parties cannot come to terms, the NLRA gives them economic weapons. Employees can go on strike, while employers can lock recalcitrant workers out and suspend their pay (in this case, tuition waivers and stipends).

Such strikes in an educational setting would be very disruptive. A prolonged strike of student assistants would force universities to cancel or scale back many classes. The striking students would take longer to get their degrees. So would the students they were supposed to teach.

Pennsylvania State schools demonstrate this risk. Instructors at these state schools are unionized under state law. They are considering a system wide strike in the fall. If the faculty strike that would delay – or cancel – classes for 107,000 college students that semester. The adversarial nature of collective bargaining interferes with universities’ educational mission.

Even if collective bargaining concludes without strikes, it would give unions considerable control over how schools teach. Union negotiations – not academic need – would determine which graduate students teach what courses, the size of those courses, and many matters surrounding how they teach (such as office-hour availability or the number of review sessions). This would considerably disrupt the learning environment.

These facts were once uncontroversial. Few unions in the 1950s or 1960s attempted to organize student assistants. But union membership has dropped below 7 percent in the private sector. Unions are desperate to boost their membership. So they are stretching the envelope of what is considered an “employee.” If they succeed, they will make U.S. higher education less educational. 

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