Georgetown University (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Georgetown University this week refused to support a movement by graduate students to unionize, arguing that teaching and research assistants are students, not employees.

The decision arrives a month after the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees asked university president John DeGioia to support their union campaign. The students said that embracing a union would align with the school’s Jesuit values affirming the dignity of labor. University leaders, however, maintain the work that graduate students contribute is fundamental to their studies and should be considered part of their education.

Georgetown’s decision echoes opposition to graduate student unions at other prestigious universities. Yale University, Boston College and Columbia University have railed against a 2016 National Labor Relations Board ruling that granted teaching and research assistants the legal protection to unionize. Yale, Columbia and Princeton posted information on their websites warning students that unionizing could alter their relationship with faculty and limit their individual rights once a union becomes their collective voice. 

In a letter sent this week to the school’s graduate student alliance, Georgetown provost Robert M. Groves and Edward B. Healton, the school’s executive vice president for health sciences, said the university is “eager” to address issues that affect graduate students, but not through collective bargaining.

“Our relationship with the students conducting research and doing teaching assistantships is one of faculty and student, mentor and mentee. This relationship is not, fundamentally, one of employer and employee,” the pair wrote. “Because all of these experiences are part of the comprehensive education provided to graduate students, we believe that we should address issues like financial assistance and health insurance in a holistic way for all graduate students.”

Groves and Healton said Georgetown will continue to increase stipends and find ways to enhance graduate student health insurance. Taking action on those issues could address student demands for higher pay and comprehensive health insurance, but members of the alliance say that is not enough to quell their desire for a seat at the table.

The union organizers want to join the American Federation of Teachers. To do that, they need to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board for an election. Organizers say they wanted the university’s backing, but will forge ahead regardless.

“We were hoping to negotiate with Georgetown administrators about the terms of the election, but now we’ll have to proceed on our own, without their help and anticipating their active push-back,” said Hailey Huget, a doctoral candidate in philosophy and a member of the graduate student alliance. “We hoped that Georgetown would be better than this.”

University leaders say they have discussed the collective bargaining campaign with the faculty senate, academic departments and the executive committee of graduate studies, the principal policy-making body for graduate programs. That committee has since passed a resolution affirming the position that students enrolled in degree programs are students and should be treated as students, not employees.

“I don’t understand why the claim that we’re learning to be teachers or researchers invalidates the fact that we produce value for the university that should be understood as employment,” Huget said. “I’m teaching my own class. I’m the instructor of record. Undergrads pay the same amount to take my class as they do to take a tenured faculty member’s class.”

Huget said she is disappointed Georgetown chose to follow in the footsteps of other prominent universities that have resisted graduate student unions.

Grad students have argued that collective bargaining is the only way universities will take their demands for better working conditions seriously. In the last year, teaching and research assistants at 16 private universities have filed petitions or participated in elections to form unions, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College in New York.

Many campus groups are worried that a partisan shift on the labor board, from Democrat to Republican, signals that last year’s ruling could be overturned. President Trump named Philip A. Miscimarra, who was the only dissenter in the graduate ruling, chairman and filled two of the five seats on the National Labor Relations Board. Now, many observers expect the board to revisit the decision on graduate unions.

With the threat of that ruling being reversed, universities could play an outsize role in the future of graduate worker rights. When the labor board overturned a ruling supporting collective bargaining for grad students at New York University in 2000, the university still chose to recognize the group. Organizers say that’s why voluntary recognition is such a critical piece of their campaigns.