(Bloomberg) -- Brown University has agreed to a path for graduate students to win collective bargaining rights without going through President Donald Trump’s National Labor Relations Board, deepening a divide among America’s top universities about whether to bargain with unions or choose all-out opposition.
Under an agreement signed Thursday with the American Federation of Teachers, if at least 30 percent of Brown graduate assistants in a proposed bargaining unit sign union cards at the Providence, Rhode Island school, the American Arbitration Association will hold a vote on unionization. If the union wins, then Brown will recognize it and negotiate “in good faith.”
While the deal doesn’t bar the university from arguing against unionization, it offers the union a way to win recognition without going through the Republican-controlled NLRB. In 2016, when the board was majority-Democratic, it ruled in favor of graduate student teachers’ and researchers’ right to unionize. But under Trump, unions seeking to organize those workers have abandoned the NLRB, for fear of providing it the opportunity to establish a new precedent reversing the Obama-era rule.
Brown’s decision follows an announcement last month that Harvard University would begin collective bargaining with the United Auto Workers, rather than contesting the results of an April election in which its graduate students voted to join the union.
The divergence among the Ivy League schools follows a moment of unity back in 2016 when the other seven Ivies backed Columbia University in opposing collective bargaining rights for graduate students.
While schools like Brown have cut deals, sister schools such as Yale University are still fighting to keep students and researchers from unionizing. The New Haven, Connecticut school contested the legality of pro-union votes by graduate students in eight departments, while Columbia announced in January that it wouldn’t negotiate with the UAW—despite a 1602-to-623 vote for unionization by graduate student teachers and researchers.
Columbia opted instead to ask a federal appeals court to review the 2016 NLRB precedent. “Because of the principles at stake—principles essential to the university’s mission of training scholars—we have declined to bargain until the legal process has been allowed to run its course,” Columbia’s provost John Coatsworth said in a letter to the campus community.
In an email Thursday to department chairs, Brown provost Richard Locke noted the conflicts on other campuses. “As you know, this agreement follows many months of negotiation and is intended to ensure an organized and orderly election process, as well as to prevent the kind of polarization that we have witnessed on our campuses around unionization elections,” he wrote.
In a statement, the American Federation of Teachers said it expects a vote at Brown to take place this fall. “I am heartened,” AFT national president Randi Weingarten said, “that the Brown Administration decided to avoid the Trumpian low road favored by some of their peers.”
AFT also reached an agreement in 2016 for an election at Cornell University; an arbitrator ruled last month that an email from a university administrator violated that agreement in the lead-up to a 2017 election, which the union lost.
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