Graduate students working as teaching and research assistants would be prohibited from unionizing under a rule proposed by the National Labor Relations Board on Sept. 23. According to the rule, graduate students who work for a university are not employees because their relationship to the school is “primarily educational in nature.”

The NLRB ruled in August 2016 to grant graduate students at private universities the right to unionize, according to a Sept. 20 New York Times article. Brandeis University’s graduate students voted to unionize in May 2017. In 2018, the union negotiated a contract with the Service Employees International Union Local 509, forming the second contract for graduate students at a private university since the 2016 ruling, according to an Aug. 27, 2018 Boston Globe article. Benefits of unionization include increased pay, capped workloads and mental health services for graduate employees.

NLRB members are appointed by the President of the United States, which explains the Board’s back-and-forth policy on graduate student unions, from prohibiting unions in 2004 under President George W. Bush to overturning that ruling in 2016 under President Barack Obama, and now yet another reversal under President Donald Trump, whose NLRB appointees have sought to limit union power. 

The proposed rule’s potential effect on existing unions, including the one at Brandeis, is uncertain. Dominick Knowles, a fourth-year PhD candidate and member of the Brandeis Graduate Union, said in an interview with the Justice that the rule change “could mean the end of our contract and a return to pre-2016 labor relations,” and noted that the rule would make it much more difficult for students at other universities to unionize. “It would mean, essentially, starting from scratch with no legal precedent,” Knowles said. 

According to a Sept. 20 Washington Post article, the rule would not necessarily prevent schools from voluntarily recognizing unions, but nonetheless administrative opposition at many universities could make unionizing more difficult. 

Knowles’ reaction to the proposed change was “generally fear,” they said. “We worked so, so hard to get where we are, and we’re still only at the initial stages of organizing. A setback this large would be a real challenge to overcome.” Knowles said they were deeply involved with the union’s contract negotiation, which took close to a year. 

It is also unclear whether the rule change could prompt legal pushback. In an interview with Science Magazine, William Herbert, the executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, said that the right to determine who is or is not an employee under labor law is reserved for Congress. “This rule seems to be usurping that congressional prerogative,” Herbert said, and predicted legal action.

Opponents of graduate student unionization argue that the relationship between graduate students and universities is educational rather than economic, and that students should not be considered workers in the context of labor relations. According to Knowles, making such a distinction creates “a false binary.” Graduate students, who received stipends to take courses and wages to teach and work as TAs even before unionization, are both students and workers, and “perform the exact same work as an adjunct or professor, both of whom are considered employees,” Knowles said. 

According to the Harvard Crimson, many of their graduate students are “often” or “always” worried about finances, with rent, savings and healthcare prompting the most concern. A separate Harvard study found that 18 percent of graduate students suffer from depression and anxiety, more than three times the average of the general population. The standardization of pay and increased access to mental health services outlined in the Brandeis union contract helps to address these concerns. The union also “opens up professional development opportunities in a frankly quite bleak job market,” Knowles said. 

Labor regulations differ between public and private colleges. Graduate students have long been able to unionize at public institutions, where, depending on the state, they are considered state employees and are protected by state labor laws. Private universities, however, are governed by federal labor law under the National Labor Relations Act. Yet strikes are prohibited under state law, but are protected under the NLRA. Similarly, graduate student unions at public universities are subject to state restrictions on what can be negotiated in contracts, which do not apply to private institutions. 

In 2016, New York University became the first private university to establish a graduate student union, followed by Brandeis, as well as The New School, American University and Tufts University. Brown University and Columbia University are among several institutions currently negotiating collective bargaining agreements. 

The NLRB will be receiving comments on the proposed rule through the Federal Register page until Nov. 29. Knowles said that “comments supporting our status as workers would be incredibly helpful.”