Disclaimer: Given that I was both a member of the Negotiations Team for this agreement and a current member of SUGSE, I must clarify that this update is provided by me as an individual graduate worker and not as a representative for either of these groups.
On Thursday, Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees (SUGSE), affiliated with Rhode Island Federation of Teaching and Health Professionals and the American Federation of Teachers, and Brown University announced together that they signed a pre-election agreement to oversee conduct for a union election. Among other things, the agreement allows graduate workers to hold an independent election with the American Arbitration Association (AAA), and should they win such an election, compels Brown to bargain in good faith. This agreement is only the second such agreement to be signed since Columbia, and the first within the Ivy League.
Securing independent elections with parties like the AAA is the only way forward for graduate workers in private universities wishing to hold union elections. The decisions issued by the National Labor Relations Board on whether graduate workers are allowed to collectively bargain are usually consistent with what’s happening in the rest of the Oval Office. In 2000, The Clinton-dominated Labor Board decided that NYU’s graduate workers were employees eligible for collective bargaining. In 2004, a Labor Board composed of Bush appointees accepted and sided with the appeal of the administration at Brown University and determined graduate workers were not workers. Finally in 2016, it was an Obama Labor Board that concluded the Brown case was not grounded in “legal authority, empirical evidence, or the Board’s actual experience,” and restored the right of graduate employees to collective bargaining. It is widely expected that Trump’s Labor Board would reject Obama’s precedent.
Consequently, schools with active petitions in front of the Board withdrew them in February, and campaigns like those at the University of Chicago and Yale have accelerated their public pressure campaigns to win voluntary recognition from their employers. Getting a pre-election agreement is a similar exercise in public pressure. In March, Georgetown passed out flyers emphasizing the need of graduate workers for collective bargaining to prospective undergraduate students and residences throughout the DC community. By April, Georgetown’s Alliance for Graduate Employees announced they signed the first pre-election agreement with their employer. Similarly, Brown held a rally and passed buttons and flyers during alumni weekend, explaining the need for a graduate worker union. The issues facing graduate workers at Brown mirror those of workers across the country: securing affordable healthcare, a stronger grievance process separate from department chairs, and clarifying the expectations of teaching workloads in a manner that does not make workers responsible for holding their faculty accountable.
Signing this pre-election agreement is in stark, but welcome contrast to Brown’s action to challenge its graduate workers in 2004. In finding for Brown, Bush’s Labor Board impounded the ballots of some 450 workers affiliated with the United Auto Workers, a move that can only be described as undemocratic. As late as 2016, Brown joined the brief filed against the graduate workers in the Columbia decision, which argued that teaching experience was integral for preparing graduate workers for their future careers “as teachers or as professional leaders.” Whether the administration has had a change of heart, the agreement does provide them with one out: if the Columbia decision is overturned at any point before a first contract is ratified, the pre-election agreement becomes null and void.
It seems unlikely this clause will come into play. Uprise RI is reporting that a strong majority of graduate workers already support efforts to unionize. In any case, the signing of this agreement, in addition to Harvard’s recognition of its graduate worker union puts additional pressure on some of the most recalcitrant of private university administrations. As the number of schools translating the vibrant energy and organizing for unionization into negotiation (like Brandeis and Tufts) increases, it will be increasingly difficult for administrations like Columbia and the University of Chicago to sustain their fictional narrative that unions will destroy universities, and more difficult for administrations like and Brown and Georgetown to walk away from their graduate workers.
On a personal note, I could not be more proud of the work done by my colleagues on this campaign, and only hope our work will help inspire similar efforts across the country. At a moment of serious political crisis, it is possible to continue pushing forward the demand and vision for labor across this country, and workers at universities are only a piece of that broader vision. With organizing efforts accelerating in tech and newsrooms, many of us are expanding a vision for democratic workplaces that can then translate into other types of political demands, like workers who are demanding Microsoft cease cooperation with ICE.