EDITORIAL: Recognize graduate students’ desire to unionize
Since the National Labor Relations Board ruled on Aug. 23, 2016 that graduate employees at private universities had the right to unionize, graduate students at several universities have endeavored to establish unions at their respective schools. Brandeis is included in this number. Today, graduate students who provide instructional services will vote to determine whether to be exclusively represented by the Services Employees International Union Local 509.
This board recognizes that there are legitimate concerns for eligible graduate employees that a union may be able to address. However, this board also has its misgivings toward unionization under the existing terms, as the resultant union will be binding, standardizing and apply to all eligible graduate student workers, regardless of individual circumstances and opinions.
On April 21, University President Ronald Liebowitz sent a letter to eligible individuals expressing that he did not believe unionization to be in students’ best interests. He believes that unionization will result in an employer-employee relationship between students and faculty, remove inventiveness and flexibility from individual areas of study and negatively impact a conducive learning environment. These statements, though plausible, are merely speculation. However, this board finds one statement of fact particularly troubling: “Whether you vote and regardless of how you vote, you will be bound by the outcome of the election.”
According to a March 24 Brandeis Hoot article, the organizing committee had collected union authorization cards from nearly 30 percent of eligible graduate student workers at the time. However, these cards only indicated support for the formation of a union and werenot representative of an individual’s intent to join the union. This implies that these authorization cards were collected under the assumption that an individual would be able to opt out of the graduate worker union should one be established. It is now clear that this is not the case.
The FAQ attached to Liebowitz’s letter makes clear that, should a union be formed, all students within the bargaining unit — graduate students who provide instructional services — would be bound under the terms of the resultant union. These eligible students include instructors, teaching assistants, teaching fellows and course assistants. Each title comes with separate responsibilities, workload and pay; yet as of present day, there has been insufficient information as to how the union would address the different issues these distinct categories bring to the table.
Further, there is existing pay difference from employee to employee even within these categories. There is yet insufficient information as to how unionization would go about standardizing these salaries, and so, several students may find their salary to be negatively impacted. In addition, all students — regardless of whether they chose to be in the union or not — would be expected to pay union dues. According to the FAQ, the SEIU charges approximately 1.5 percent of an employee’s total compensation annually.
Regardless, the election is today. Eligible graduate employees must vote with what information is available, as this election’s result will affect years of instructional graduate student workers to come.