Graduate Students Could Lose Right to Unionize

Abby Schnable | The PhoenixThe federal government may stop acknowledging graduate students as workers, reversing a decision made in 2016.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — an arm of the federal government that enforces labor laws — may stop recognizing graduate students at private universities as workers, which could impact Loyola’s graduate student union’s years-long fight to reach employee status and secure a first-ever contract with the university.  

The NLRB currently recognizes graduate students — who work at the private universities they attend — as workers, which grants them certain rights such as the ability to form a union. If the NLRB changes the way graduate students are recognized, they could no longer have these legal protections. It’s unclear how exactly this could affect Loyola’s 273 graduate student workers if passed. 

Despite how the NLRB currently recognizes graduate students as workers, Loyola considers them strictly as students — not workers — according to the Rev. Thomas Regan, S.J., the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School. This means the school doesn’t bargain with the graduate students’ union for better working conditions. 

“If we go to this movement that has the graduate students as workers, then we lose the collaborative model of graduate education to one of conflict and tension,” Regan said. 

Graduate student workers from Loyola’s College of Arts and Sciences first unionized in 2017 in order to fight for better working conditions, The Phoenix reported. Since then, the university has increased graduate student workers’ stipends, included dental health coverage in their insurance and increased travel funding for conferences, The Phoenix reported

The policy change would occur in October, after the required 60-day waiting period which started Sept. 23, according to the NLRB. Until then, the NLRB is accepting feedback from the public about the decision. 

“In the past 19 years, the Board has changed its stance on this issue three times,” NLRB Chairman John F. Ring said in a press release. “This rulemaking is intended to obtain maximum input on this issue from the public, and then to bring stability to this important area of federal labor law.” 

Alec Stubbs, a Ph.D. philosophy student worker and co-chair of Loyola’s graduate union, said the graduate student union plans to organize along with others across Chicago in order to express their concerns about the potential change. 

“We’re aggregating a bunch of comments from graduate workers detailing their lives, their struggles, the reasons why they need a union, the fact that it’s difficult and precarious to be a graduate student because of the minimal pay and the long working hours,” Stubbs, 25, said. 

The National Relations Labor Act (NRLA) — passed in 1935 —  is the statute of labor law which guarantees employees’ rights to unionize and also defines who’s considered an employee. The NRLA didn’t originally recognize graduate students as workers. In 2016, the NLRB — under the Obama administration — adjusted the law to recognize graduate students at private universities as workers. 

Despite these changes in federal law, Loyola has continued to consider graduate students as strictly students, The Phoenix reported. If the NLRB changes the law, then the graduate students’ union would have no chance of eventually being recognized by Loyola. 

Regan said graduate students should be considered students because they don’t have as much experience teaching as other professors. He said the university offers opportunities to graduate students so they can gain experience as a part of their education. Graduate students’ stipends begin at $2,000 a month and increase each year they work, according to Regan. 

However, some graduate students argue they should still be considered employees because they’re doing work that’s essential for the university to function, such as teaching classes and grading papers. 

Under the Trump administration, the NLRB — which is appointed by the president — plans to reverse the changes the Obama administration made which will cause graduate students to lose their status as workers, which Loyola never recognized. 

Claire Lockard, a Ph.D. candidate studying philosophy, said nothing about their work has changed between 2016 and 2019 other than the presidential administrations. 

“Grad workers haven’t started doing less work or haven’t become less crucial to [the university’s] functioning,” Lockard, 25, said. “It’s the fact that the Trump-appointed labor board is trying to undermine labor interests, broadly speaking.”

Caroline McCraw, a second-year graduate student studying digital humanities, said higher education has become more exclusive as college tuition across the country has increased. She said not recognizing graduate students as workers or allowing them to unionize is another way of making education less accessible and less affordable. 

“Graduate workers are spread so thin as it is, so to deprive us of the opportunity to work together to advocate for ourselves, it’s sinister,” McCraw, 30, said. 

Stubbs said he views the NLRB’s potential change as a tipping point in the conversation with Loyola.  

“What [the change] means for the Loyola administration is essentially that they have to own up to the fact they are now hiding behind the exact same rhetoric and the exact same arguments that the Trump administration is using to be able to deny labor rights to graduate workers,” Stubbs said. 

Regan said he doesn’t think the policy change should be viewed in a partisan way and the consensus shouldn’t flip every time a new administration takes office. 

“People have to look to the law and be able to say, ‘This is what the law says and it’s not political,’” Regan said. “I think the reputation of the courts is that justice is served and I think it degrades the court when people think that it’s just a political decision.” 

Nathan Ellstrand, a Ph.D. candidate studying history, said he hopes Loyola can recognize graduate students as workers in order to honor its Jesuit values. 

“Social justice is a big mission of the university and [what it needs to do] to really live up to its mission, would be recognizing labor,” Ellstrand, 31, said. 

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