WASHINGTON—Graduate workers across the country have hit back at a Trump administration rule that would deny them the legal right to unionize, calling out the assault as a blatant attempt to devalue their labor and muzzle their voice.
The proposed rule, released Friday, effectively reverses the National Labor Relations Board’s landmark 2016 Columbia University decision, which found graduate employees at private schools and colleges were workers entitled to the same legal protections as others, including the right to join a union.
The new rule falsely asserts that grad workers—who grade the papers, do the research and teach the classes that keep their universities running—are merely students. It would permit universities to profit from grads’ work on the one hand, while claiming they aren’t even workers on the other. Furthermore, the proposed rule is illegitimate because it exceeds the board’s statutory authority.
Graduate employees often struggle to support themselves and their families but have won big improvements through the power of collective action. Northwestern University workers secured an extra quarter of funding worth $7,500 and the repeal and refund of an international student fee. University of Chicago grads, whose rogue administration has refused to bargain a contract despite over two-thirds of employees voting ‘yes’ for a union, have won improved parental leave policies and better child care. And grads at Brown and Georgetown have won formal recognition of their unions and are currently negotiating fruitfully at the bargaining table.
Grads are organizing with the American Federation of Teachers under the banner of AFT Academics. They will shortly submit comments urging the rule be scrapped while continuing to fight for dignity and respect. A national campaign and day of action will raise pressure on the Trump administration to uphold their rights and existing law.
Rithika Ramamurthy, a doctoral candidate in English at Brown University, said: “Make no mistake: Our work is work. The Trump NLRB’s rule seeks to deny the value of our work by classifying us as ‘students’ for the sole purpose of diminishing worker power at colleges and universities and in the economy.
“Our position is simple: Brown and other private universities should honor the democratic will of graduate workers, with or without the NLRB. We stand in solidarity with all graduate workers who wish to have a collective voice, and we stand against this proposed rule.”
Elizabeth Bain, co-president of Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago, said the rule won’t stop grads from organizing to make their school more equitable, inclusive and just: “By challenging our right to organize for a more just workplace, the right-wing Trump NLRB and the University of Chicago are forcing us back to talking about things instead of doing them,” she said.
“If research assistants stop working, scientific advances stop happening and grant funding stops flowing. If teaching assistants stop working, labs stop happening and undergraduates stop learning. That collective power, regardless of what the NLRB chooses to label it, is what charges graduate workers with the responsibility to take action and challenge fundamentally unjust institutions.”
Jewel Tomasula, a Georgetown graduate worker in biology, said: “We know we are workers by the simple reality of doing our jobs as teachers and researchers. No NLRB rule reversal will change our reality as workers who need livable wages, good benefits and a voice in decisions that impact our lives. We have found our power in unionizing, and there's no stopping this movement now. Whether it's at the bargaining table or through collective action, graduate unions will continue to fight for and win tangible improvements for grad workers.”
AFT President Randi Weingarten said graduate workers will keep raising their voice regardless of the rule and called out the administration for its blatant anti-worker animus. “Graduate workers deserve respect for the work they do and the right to join a union, just like any other employee,” she said.
“President Trump doesn’t agree—and he’s written a new federal rule to try to stop them in their tracks. This is a brazen attempt to strip them of voice and the power to bargain for the conditions and pay they need as the backbone of instruction at so many universities.
“This assault is of a piece with the Trump-DeVos agenda to hurt students by changing Title IX, siding with loan servicers over borrowers and now attacking grads’ right to organize.
“But grads will not be cowed. They know that together they can achieve what would be impossible alone. I have their backs, and we will never waver in helping them fight for the dignity and voice they deserve.”
The AFT, the largest U.S. higher education union, represents more than 25,000 graduate employee members across 23 institutions in nine states.