The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

The Post-Columbia Rush to Organize

Following the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)’s August 23 decision in Columbia University, which held that student workers at private institutions are employees entitled to collective bargaining and other rights and protections under the National Labor Relations Act, colleges and universities have seen a rapid increase in union organizing efforts employing disparate approaches and increased union activity on campus from student workers and other employees.

In Columbia, the United Auto Workers filed a petition to represent a bargaining unit comprised of both graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants and all graduate research assistants at the university. The exact contours of this approximately 3,000-student bargaining unit are still to be determined by the NLRB. This large single bargaining unit approach to organizing seen in Columbia, however, is not the only method unions are using to organize students.

Less than a week after the Columbia decision, UNITE HERE, a union seeking to organize teaching assistants at Yale University, filed 10 separate election petitions for graduate assistants in 10 academic departments at the University — essentially creating 10 different and independent units that the university will have to bargain with if the NLRB decides these are “appropriate” units. While in the past, the Board might have rejected such units as inappropriately “fracturing” the workplace, in its 2011 decision in Specialty Healthcare, it announced it would allow unions significantly more control over the scope of a bargaining unit and thus open the door to this method of organizing. Whether or not UNITE HERE’s approach is successful in organizing or creates sustainable bargaining relationships remains to be seen.

Another approach that unions are taking with regard to student unionization can be seen at Harvard University where the United Auto Workers and the university announced an election agreement — defining who is eligible to vote along with other logistical details like specifying the process for an NLRB-supervised election — setting up a vote on November 16 and 17. On other campuses that are not so far along in the process, we are seeing student organizations vetting national unions to see which ones can best represent their interests. At Northwestern University, the Northwestern University Graduate Workers invited representatives from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to make their case for why they should represent them, and on October 4, graduate workers at the University of Chicago faced similar deliberations and voted for AFT as their choice to organize for collective bargaining.

If you would like more information on this subject, view CUPA-HR’s free webinar with Jonathan Fritts and former NLRB Board Member Harry Johnson, both of Morgan Lewis. The webinar explains the basics of the Columbia decision, the NLRB’s election process, how a bargaining unit might be defined and what an organizing drive on your campus might look like.


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