(Bloomberg) -- After pushing for years, unions finally secured a ruling late in the Obama administration restoring collective bargaining rights to graduate students paid to teach and conduct research at private universities. That ruling came from the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that enforces private sector labor law and sometimes forces companies to negotiate with unions.
That was then. Now, under President Donald Trump, unions are abandoning the NLRB and going it alone. Meanwhile, universities such as the University of Chicago and Yale University, which have fiercely opposed such union efforts, may have a new friend in the Trump administration.
On Wednesday morning, Graduate Students United (GSU) announced it was abandoning its NLRB effort to secure collecting bargaining with the University of Chicago. GSU, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the Association of American University Professors, is withdrawing its petition to the agency despite having won an NLRB-supervised election by a 2-to-1 margin just last year. An opposing effort by the university, which asked the NLRB to find that the graduate students aren’t actually employees, had been pending before the board.
The reason for the reversal, the union said, is Trump. His appointees to the NLRB, a management-side attorney and a staffer for congressional Republicans, have been busy overturning pro-labor decisions from the Obama era. After winning a precedent-setting ruling in 2016 establishing the right of graduate students to unionize through the NLRB, unions are now hesitant to test their luck in Washington, lest the current board reverse their victory.
“We are still a union,” said Chaz Lee, a music-history graduate student at the University of Chicago and a volunteer organizer with the union there. “We look forward to meeting the administration at the bargaining table.”
Of the NLRB’s five members, the president is allowed to choose three from his or her own party. When that majority has flipped in recent years, so did the board’s stance on graduate students. Under Democratic President Bill Clinton, the NLRB ruled in favor of graduate students seeking to unionize in a landmark case at New York University. After Republican President George W. Bush reconstituted the board, the agency went on to overturn that ruling in a case at Brown University. After Obama, a Democrat, took over, his board used a new case involving Columbia University to reinstate the precedent in the NYU case.
So when Trump took office, the Republican’s victory immediately stoked speculation that, given the chance, his nominees would restore the Bush-era position. By withdrawing their petitions, the unions are attempting to stave off such a switch. The current board has moved quickly to overturn high profile Obama-era decisions on issues such as classifying companies “joint employers” of workers not directly paid by them.
The union U-turn in Chicago follows a similar move at Yale University, where a group affiliated with the hospitality union Unite Here withdrew its petition to represent graduate teachers and researchers, despite having won NLRB elections in eight departments. “President Trump’s NLRB has repeatedly demonstrated its hostility to workers’ rights,” the local union’s co-president Robin Dawson said in a statement Monday explaining the move.
In an email Wednesday, Yale spokeswoman Karen Peart reiterated the university’s position that those department-by-department elections, whose legality Yale was challenging, were “undemocratic.”
In lieu of getting the government to force schools such as Chicago or Yale to recognize their unions, organizers plan to pressure the universities to voluntarily recognize and negotiate with them. “We’re seeking the clearest and most direct path to securing a contract and upholding our rights as employees,” University of Chicago graduate student employee Daniela Palmer said in a statement from GSU. A spokesperson for the university said it was “committed to working with graduate students and faculty to improve graduate education and graduate student life.”
Labor groups around the country, like taxi workers in New York and public employees in Tennessee, organize for workplace improvements while lacking formal recognition from their bosses. Graduate employee unions say their advocacy over the years has already spurred improvements in areas, including pay and benefits, even without formal collective bargaining.
The Service Employees International Union has won union recognition through the NLRB at schools such as American University and Tufts University, but cutting out the middleman has worked before, too. In 2013, when an NLRB ruling restoring graduate students’ union rights was expected but hadn’t happened, NYU reached a deal with the United Auto Workers to voluntarily recognize the union after its graduate students voted for representation. (Some years earlier, however, NYU did take advantage of a Republican White House and its right-leaning NLRB; after Bush appointees reversed the Clinton-era decision that opened the door to a first-of-its-kind union contract at the university, NYU refused to renew it.) The UAW didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The SEIU declined to comment on its legal strategy.
Despite the shift in union strategy, both sides of the dispute have an additional branch of government to worry about. On Jan. 30, Columbia announced that, rather than negotiating with the UAW, which won a 2016 election there, it would ask a federal appeals court to review the NLRB precedent in favor of graduate student union rights. The court could hand down a more permanent victory to either the student-employees seeking to unionize, or the universities dead set against it.
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