Republican-controlled subcommittees critical of graduate student unions

By Austen Hufford, Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 12, 2012

Congressional Republicans were highly critical of efforts at Universities across the country to organize graduate students as two subcommittees held hearings on the subject Wednesday.

The House Higher Education and Workforce Training subcommittee and the House Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions subcommittee discussed cases pending before the National Labor Relations Board. Deans from two universities and an AFL-CIO representative also spoke at the hearing as witnesses.

The NLRB is currently reconsidering its 2004 ruling which deemed graduate students at private universities unable to unionize.

U.S. Rep. Phil Roe (R–Tenn.), chairman of the health subcommittee, said the NLRB is essentially controlled by large unions, and thus biased in favor of unionization.

“The NLRB is utterly determined to advance a culture of union favoritism,” Roe said.

He continued to condemn the NLRB’s role in higher education, adding that he believes there could be “significant changes” to the college system if the NLRB allowed for unionization.

The NLRB ruled in 2004 that graduate students at Brown University are students, not employees, and thus cannot unionize.

“Without any new facts or compelling reason, the board is reconsidering (the Brown) decision and contemplating whether to abandon policies that have helped advance learning experience of graduate students nationwide,” he said.

Roe also discussed a recent NLRB ruling that significantly sped up the union creation process.

“The board’s ambush election scheme would leave graduate students struggling to keep up with their studies and the demands of their professors,” Roe said. “Just 10 days to decide whether they want to join a union.”

U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R–N.C.), chairwoman of the higher education subcommittee, said she was once a graduate assistant and ALSO advised many during her time working in higher education as the president of Mayland Community College in North Carolina.

“I understand the value of the system as it currently works,” she said. “The cost and uncertainty associated with the proliferation of unionization among graduate students could force institutions to curb, or even shut down, graduate student assistant programs.”

Peter Weber, dean of Brown University’s graduate school, spoke as a witness at the meeting and claimed that graduate assistants are primarily students.

He said that having graduate assistants teach is a vital learning opportunity that prepares them for future employment.

“I am quite certain that defining Brown’s graduate students as employees would damage the very fabric of graduate education at Brown University and many private institutions of learning,” Weber said.

Christian Sweeney, deputy director of the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Department, disagreed with Weber’s assessment.

Sweeney said graduate assistants have many issues, from workplace safety to health insurance, that only unionization is essential in helping to fix.

“The notion that the NLRB or Big Labor is somehow pushing its way into academia is misguided,” Sweeney said. “In fact, the opposite is true. Workers in academia are reaching out to unions in large numbers.”

At the University, the Graduate Employees Organization attempted to unionize graduate student research assistants, but its attempts were unsuccessful after the state Legislature passed a law, signed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, earlier this year that prohibited GSRAs from organizing.

The unionization struggle divided University leaders as the Democratically controlled Board of Regents supported the unionization efforts despite the objections of University President Mary Sue Coleman, Provost Philip Hanlon and nearly all of the University’s deans.