Yes, graduate students who work are WORKERS. The National Labor Relations Board has re-settled the question of whether graduate student workers are primarily students or workers and decided…they can be both.
This is a major victory for teaching and research assistants at Columbia University and in similar institutions across the country, including Yale, Harvard, Cornell and the New School where graduate assistants are already organizing. Recognizing their work means their right to form a union is restored and they have access to the legal rights to form a union and negotiate over pay, benefits and working conditions.
Olga Brudastova, a research assistant in Columbia’s Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics as a part of the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW 2110), said:
We instruct classes, grade papers for thousands of students and push the boundaries of research and the arts, but despite these contributions and more, Columbia administrators have stood in the way of our rights. By standing together, graduate workers have already won major, university-wide improvements, and with a union, we’ll be able to secure those improvements and make Columbia do even better.
University administrations at several schools, including those in the Ivy League, have fought against this outcome. Alas, the boss’s campaign is waged from even within ivory towers. However, graduate employees of New York University are ready for the fight! Anne Pasek, a Ph.D. student at NYU, said:
We're thrilled by the decision and the prospect of welcoming and working with more grad students in the labor movement. Together we can be a real force for reform within higher education, fighting for better conditions for both our peers and the students we teach. We can expect similar anti-union tactics at Columbia as we saw at NYU. The fight is by no means over—but it’s a wonderful step forward.
Cornell Graduate Students United is also forging ahead. CGSU is organizing with the New York State United Teachers and the AFT and have already reached an agreement with the university to hold an election. From CGSU's solidarity statement:
We, the graduate workers of Cornell University, are organizing a union to participate as equal partners on the decisions that affect our working conditions. Our work is integral and adds value to this institution. Cornell works because we do: as researchers, as teachers and as mentors. We aim to achieve a legally binding contract and to advocate for improvements through member-driven collective action, so that now and in the future no graduate worker will have to face hardships in their workplace alone. We stand in solidarity with fellow workers, students and the community to create a better Cornell.
Members of the Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU-UAW) also want the union advantage. Alex O’Campo, a student worker in the Biostatistics Department, said:
I want a union for grad-employees here at Harvard because I believe grad students are some of the hardest working people I know and should have the right to negotiate their salaries and benefits. I also believe all graduate students deserve dental, child care and parental leave. Lastly, from one mathematician to another: Albert Einstein believes in unions and so do I.
While it’s obvious to anyone who has walked in their shoes that most graduate teaching and research assistants are seriously committed to their work, it is not an easy task to balance your academic work with your job, especially when you don’t get decent wages, health care or help navigating a university system that treats you as expendable. As a former graduate student worker who worked for a close-to-nothing stipend, alongside an adjunct professor who got a sliver more than almost-nothing, I admire the guts of all the grad unions. We stand with student workers in solidarity!