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Graduate Students and the Expansion of Trade Unionism

By Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Teaching Assistant Orientation
Photo credit: Center for Teaching Vanderbilt University

Graduate students have been attempting to organize labor unions for decades. Until recently, those at private universities and colleges have been blocked from unionizing largely due to a Supreme Court decision from 1980, NLRB v Yeshiva University, that placed graduate students into the camp of managerial personnel and, therefore, ineligible for unionization and collective bargaining. The National Labor Relations Board has shifted the entire discussion with a decision affecting Columbia University graduate students. Just recently, Yale University students filed a petition for union recognition.

The claim that graduate students were somehow managerial never passed the ‘straight face test.’ They are paid poorly, are subject to the direction of professors, and have little control (or say) over their teaching load. They are treated as if they can and should survive on the honor of having an audience with a full professor. For years, graduate students have argued that this is absurd.

Graduate student unionism is not a whim, as demonstrated by this multi-decades long justice struggle by wave after wave of graduate students (despite the odds!). It speaks to a broadening sense of the need and importance of unionism beyond traditional workforces.

To the extent that many of us are aware of labor unions and labor unionism, it is frequently associated with blue collar employment or, more recently, public school teachers. Yet entire sectors of the economy witness little or no union presence, though they desperately need it. This absence is not, in the main, due to a lack of interest in labor unions. Rather, employers and their allies in government have made it exceedingly difficult for most workers to join or form labor unions. The case of graduate students is on point. The Supreme Court decision of 1980 in Yeshiva threw a monkey wrench into efforts to expand the reach of unions. Its arguments did not correspond to the changing nature of work in the USA.

And herein lies the larger issue and why the recent NLRB decision is of such importance. The nature of work and the workplace have changed dramatically since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 (which granted the right to unionization and collective bargaining). Jobs and categories that at one point might have appeared to have been legitimately independent and/or managerial have shifted in their role, authority, and relationship to power. Medical personnel, particularly doctors, who at one point were highly independent, are increasingly subject to the dictates of insurance companies and medical networks. The days of independent doctors, such as early 1970s television’s Marcus Welby, MD are long-gone (if you, the reader, even remember that television series), as the medical industry shifted dramatically beginning in the late 1980s.

Graduate students are part of this changing workforce. Many, if not most of them, are encumbered by immense amounts of debt both from their undergraduate years as well as their current graduate education. Once upon a time, the future of a graduate student was largely dependent on the good graces of their professor-supervisors. Such a system was never fair and appropriate, in that it was based on personality rather than the putting into place a system to protect the basic rights and responsibilities of the graduate student. Hopefully we are on the verge of a new era of expanding the ability of graduate students and other professionals to organize.

Graduate students of the world, unite!


About the Author 

Bill Fletcher, Jr.Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a talk show host, writer, and activist.  His book from Beacon Press, “They’re Bankrupting Us!” And Twenty Other Myths about Unions, addresses many of the misconceptions about unions and unionism. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and at