Trump’s labor board wants to deprive graduate student workers of their basic right to form unions

The Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board proposed a rule last week that would rob graduate teaching assistants and other student employees of the rights to organize and collectively bargain. This is just the most recent example of the board’s attack on working people. Last month, the board determined that misclassifying workers as independent contractors does not violate the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Before that, the General Counsel’s office released a deeply flawed memo that found that Uber drivers were not employees under the NLRA.

The trend with the Trump board seems to be to take a statute which broadly protects private sector workers and whittle away at its scope. At a time when worker advocates are demanding more workers have the right to a union and collective bargaining, the Trump board’s graduate teaching assistant proposal demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the modern workforce.

Had the Trump board considered any data or conducted any meaningful analysis of the academic workplace in developing the proposed rule, it would have discovered that the last several decades have seen significant changes in labor conditions. Universities have increasingly relied on graduate teaching assistants and contingent faculty, with the growth in graduate assistant positions and non-tenure track positions outpacing the increase in tenured and tenure-track positions between the Fall of 2005 and Fall 2015.

These positions have dramatically lower compensation than faculty. The average salary of a graduate teaching assistant during the 2015-2016 school year was $35,810. Individuals who are working while enrolled in graduate school deserve livable wages. One way to address this issue is through collective bargaining—the very right the Trump board seeks to rob from these workers.

Further, in spite of the majority’s insistence that collective bargaining will harm “academic freedom,” there is a wealth of evidence to the contrary. Public universities have had graduate student worker unions for 50 years. In 2016, more than 64,000 graduate student employees were unionized at 28 institutions of higher education in the public sector. The colleges and universities with union represented student employees have not reported a loss of “academic freedom” as the Trump board suggests.

In reality, union-represented graduate student employees at public universities have reported that they enjoy higher levels of personal and professional support than that reported by non-union represented students. Unionized and nonunionized student employees report similar perceptions of academic freedom. However, union-represented graduate student workers did report receiving higher pay than non-union represented graduate student workers. Perhaps this is one reason why there have been so many successful organizing campaigns on campuses across the country the last few years. Student employees at several private universities have unionized and won better working conditions–better pay, better health care, better child care. The Trump board’s proposal would rob student employees of these gains.

The Trump board is committed to rolling back workers’ rights to a union and collective bargaining. They routinely advance political proposals based on flawed facts and legal reasoning. Through decisions, general counsel memos, and rulemaking the agency is making it more and more difficult for working people to have a voice in the workplace. All workers deserve the basic right to a union. The NLRB is the agency responsible for ensuring that right and we must hold them accountable for betraying their statutory duty.

Members of the public are invited to comment on the Trump board’s most recent proposal. Comments can be submitted here.