- The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced last week that it plans to propose rules to serve as a "standard" for determining whether student workers at private colleges and universities are employees for the purposes of collective bargaining.
- Listed for September 2019, the proposed rules are expected to make it more difficult for student workers such as teaching and research assistants to unionize — a position an Obama-appointed board supported in 2016 in a case involving Columbia University. It was the latest in a series of alternating, politically-driven positions on the issue.
- Unions have been reluctant to bring a case to the NLRB under the Trump administration, fearing it would reverse the Columbia ruling. However, the unusual step of issuing a rule would break the trend of adjudicating the issue.
Tensions between student workers at private institutions and their administrations are rising as debate continues over whether the former group has a right to unionize. Citing several strikes or near-strikes in the Chicago metro area involving students and faculty, the Chicago Tribune highlights concerns over pay and job security stemming from institutions' growing use of nontenured instructors.
The publication listed strikes beyond the Midwest city, including in Pennsylvania, California and Ohio. Student workers argue that their tasks on campus, which include research, instruction and other work, outweigh that of typical students and are critical to the institution, Newsweek reports, but many administrators say that workload is part of the deal.
Colleges looking to break up existing or prevent the formation of unions on their campuses may find a friend in the current NLRB.
That concern led student workers at Grinnell College, in Iowa, to abandon an effort to ask the NLRB for permission to expand their union to include all student employees, according to local media reports. They were fearful that the board under Trump would side with the college and therefore set a new precedent for student workers on other campuses who are looking to unionize.
However, some institutions have voluntarily recognized graduate student unions, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported, including Brown, Georgetown, Montana State and New York Universities as well as the University of Connecticut.
The trend toward unionization and strikes reflects similar activity in K-12 schools, where teachers are pushing district and state leaders to address the effects of reduced funding.