Proposed bill bans NLRB from stripping grad workers’ right to unionize

Stephon Johnson | 1/30/2020, 1 p.m.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced a bill that would restrict attempts to stop graduate students from organizing.
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U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced a bill that would restrict attempts to stop graduate students from organizing.

Last week, Sanders introduced the Respect Graduate Student Workers Act that prohibits the National Labor Relations Board from enacting a proposed rule stripping grad workers’ right to unionize.

The proposed legislation’s already been endorsed by the likes of the American Federation of Teachers, Service Employees International Union, and the American Association of University Professors.

“For far too long, the trend in our higher education system has been going in the wrong direction: longer hours, lower pay, weaker job security, and more debt,” said Sanders in a statement. “Too many Americans working within this field have to take on two or even three jobs just to get by.”

This recent attempt to push back against organized labor is part of a coordinator effort shepherded by President Donald Trump’s administration. In 2018, the Supreme Court turned public sector employment into a “right to work” venture ruling that non-public sector union members aren’t compelled to pay dues to the union despite having their salary and pay collectively bargained. The court also ruled that union fees must be opt-in for employees making it harder for unions to collect.

Barbara Bowen, president of Professional Staff Congress (the union representing faculty and staff at the City University of New York), said that higher education has followed the Trump mantra for years and has continued to fight against unionizing.

“Bernie Sanders is right: higher education as an industry is an abuser of labor,” said Bowen in a statement. “Nearly three-quarters of college faculty are in part-time or precarious jobs, including graduate employees. Most part-time and graduate employee workers are radically underpaid. Sanders’ and Pocan’s Respect Graduate Student Workers Act is an urgently needed corrective. Graduate students who work in universities are workers; they must have the right to organize.”

The NLRB recently proposed a rule to strip graduate student workers of the ability to unionize at their institutions. It would impact nearly 58,000 graduate assistants.

Democratic Congressman Mark Pocan of Wisconsin (who introduced the bill in the House of Representatives), said that this bill is meant to fight the backlash against organized labor led by the Trump administration.

“Graduate workers are a vital part of teaching and research in colleges and universities and should have an equal voice in their workplace,” stated Pocan. “Stripping graduate students of their rights to unionize is a blatant attempt to profit off the backs of workers without giving them their due. Every worker in every industry deserves the right to form a union, because all workers deserve respect in the workplace.”

A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute showed that “The Trump NLRB is committed to rolling back workers’ rights to a union and collective bargaining. It routinely advances political proposals based on flawed facts and flawed legal reasoning. Through decisions, general counsel memos, and rule making, the agency is making it more and more difficult for working people to have a voice in the workplace.”

“Stronger unions and worker protections are a key part of solving this crisis in our colleges and universities,” Sanders stated. “But instead of protecting graduate workers, the National Labor Relations Board is trying to strip them of their rights. I am proud to join Representative Pocan on this effort to push back against yet another assault by the Trump administration against working people.”

Bowen said the future of academia can be found in graduate students and the anti-union push would hurt their future.

“At CUNY, where we have had a union in place since the 1970s, graduate employees are part of the union,” said Bowen. “Being part of a union has enabled them to win health insurance, higher pay, tuition waivers and more. Grad employees are the hope of the profession; they have made the choice to go into academic work even though it requires years of study and is often poorly paid.

“As a society, we should do everything we can to support them, starting with the most basic of rights—the right to organize,” concluded Bowen.