The Fight Goes On

By Emily Gold Boutilier / January / February 2002
July 1st, 2007
And then they voted. Over two days in December, nine of every ten graduate students deemed eligible by a federal labor board went to the Sharpe Refectory to cast a ballot on whether to affiliate with a union. That the vote took place was a victory for the Brown Graduate Employee Organization (BGEO), a United Auto Workers affiliate that had waged a six-month campaign for it.

It was not, however, the end of the BGEO's efforts. After the December 6з7 vote, University officials appealed the late-November ruling by the New England office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that had called for the vote. NLRB officials then impounded the ballots; if Brown wins its appeal, they will never be tallied. Closely monitoring the action are such schools as Columbia and Yale, which, along with other private universities, have been looking for a way to slow down the student unionization efforts that surged after November 2000, when graduate students at New York University became the first at a private university to win collective bargaining rights. NYU lost its NLRB appeal, but Brown's case is viewed as stronger by many observers because teaching is an integral part of graduate-student education here. (Brown's appeal also asks the NLRB to overturn NYU's case.) "We think our case brings to the forefront the issue of whether graduate students who teach should be considered employees," says Walter Hunter, vice president for administration. "We think graduate students are students, not employees."

Rosemary Pye, the Boston-based NLRB regional director whose ruling mirrored the earlier NYU decision, strongly disagrees. "The work that is performed by the [teaching assistants]," she wrote, "is the same work, in some instances, that is performed by faculty, and is work that, the evidence shows, would otherwise have to be performed by other employees." Even among Brown Ph.D. students for whom teaching is a requirement, she pointed out, 70 percent taught for more semesters than was necessary. And in the eleven Ph.D. programs that do not require teaching, 86 percent of students still worked as TAs.

BGEO member Sheyda Jahanbani, a Ph.D. student in history, is especially dismayed that Brown is seeking to overturn the NYU decision. "To try to impose ideas on another group of people at another university," she says, "is pretty much the soul of hubris."

The union sought to represent about 500 of Brown's 1,350 graduate students, a number that includes teaching assistants, teaching fellows, proctors, and social-science and humanities research assistants. Following the NYU precedent, Pye did not grant science research assistants the eligibility to vote, arguing that their work is identical to their dissertation research. The exclusion is significant because such RAs have tended to oppose unionization both nationally and at Brown. Brown's appeal argues that if graduate assistants do have the right to unionize, all should be allowed to vote.

The NLRB has four options if it agrees to review the case: to uphold the regional director's decision, to allow science RAs to vote, to deny collective bargaining on the grounds that teaching is a degree requirement at Brown, or to deny collective bargaining for graduate students in general. NYU's appeal took seven months to resolve, and if Brown loses, the University can still refuse to bargain with the students, which would likely lead the NLRB to sue Brown.

For now, though, about 460 paper ballots are sealed away, uncounted, in a Boston federal office building, and speculating about their contents has become a campus pastime. Was one indicator of the vote's outcome the standing ovation given to President Ruth Simmons, a unionization opponent, at a graduate-student forum a few days before the vote? What about the UAW campaign poster that included signatures of only 131 people pledging to vote for the union? Or the 358 graduate students (about 100 of them eligible voters, according to Hunter) who, after the NLRB issued its ruling, signed a petition urging the University to appeal on the grounds that science RAs should also be eligible to vote?

One union supporter, Keith Hall, a Ph.D. student in computer science, says that the union's own tactics may have backfired. For example, some students have told him that an open letter to the faculty blasting Simmons for opposing the union only increased sympathy for the popular president's position.

Whatever the result of the vote, however, it is unlikely to be known for months to come, if ever.

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January / February 2002