Georgetown University administrators on Monday agreed to let graduate students vote this spring on whether to join the American Federation of Teachers union, a move that eliminates the involvement of the National Labor Relations Board.
The decision is significant because of the uncertainty surrounding a 2016 NLRB ruling that granted teaching and research assistants the legal protection to unionize. Student organizers fear a partisan shift on the labor board, from Democrat to Republican, signals that the ruling could be overturned. But Georgetown officials said the university will respect students’ right to vote for a union and engage in collective bargaining over a contract regardless of the board’s actions.
“Today’s agreement creates a new framework recognizing that graduate students’ relationship with the university is fundamentally an educational one, while also responding to their desire to have a stronger voice in the terms of their service as teaching assistants, research assistants and teaching associates,” Georgetown Provost Robert M. Groves and Edward B. Healton, the school’s executive vice president for health sciences, said in an email to the university Monday.
Georgetown had refused in December to support graduate students’ effort to unionize, arguing that graduate students are not employees and the work they contribute should be considered part of their education. The position rattled the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees, which a month earlier had asked university President John DeGioia to back their union campaign.
Organizers continued to work with Georgetown to find a path forward and proposed an election that would be overseen by a neutral third party other than the NLRB. Groves told students and faculty in January the administration was seriously considering the idea. University leaders met with the graduate alliance over the next few months to hammer out an agreement.
“This negotiation took a while, and our members were always ready to show our strength at every turn,” said Kevin Carriere, a doctoral candidate in psychology and member of the graduate student alliance. “In the end, we’re extremely happy with this agreement. It ensures we get our vote and brings Georgetown to the bargaining table once we win.”
The pact signed Monday reflects the priorities of the university and the graduate alliance. The alliance has fought for an election free of interference and a guarantee the university will respect the outcome. Both sides have agreed to procedures for an election and, if the vote is successful, for collective bargaining. The American Arbitration Association, an organization that coordinates labor negotiations, will mediate the vote, and resolve disputes should they arise.
If the election results in a graduate bargaining unit, the university has agreed to consider proposals on wages, benefits, leave policies and hours of work. The agreement places some academic issues off limits, including admissions criteria, scholarship decisions, curriculum requirements, and the assignment of research and teaching assistant roles.
“This blueprint is due to a relentless two-year organizing effort by the Georgetown graduate workers, who understood unions make possible what would be impossible for individuals acting alone,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Striking a private agreement is a common path toward unionization in higher education, said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College in New York. Before the National Labor Relations Board asserted jurisdiction over the sector in 1970, it was the only way to form a union in higher education. Since then, a number of universities have bypassed the labor board in favor of selecting a third-party arbitrator, including New York University and Cornell University.
By adopting voluntary agreements, schools can avoid costly litigation that often arises over the scope of the bargaining unit or other disputes, Herbert said. Graduate students, meanwhile, are spared the threat of the NLRB changing its position on their legal protection to unionize, which has happened in the past and could happen again.
President Trump named Philip A. Miscimarra, the only dissenter in the 2016 graduate ruling, chairman of the labor board and filled two of five seats. The board has already overturned three unrelated labor rulings.
“Those rulings that were overturned happened pretty rapidly without notice to the labor and employment community,” Herbert said. “It might have sent a message of where things may be headed.”
In the past three months, graduate students at Boston College, the University of Chicago and Yale University have withdrawn petitions with the labor board to seek voluntary recognition from their schools. Administrators at all three schools have fought against graduate unions on the grounds that students are not employees.
Graduate students have argued that collective bargaining is the only way universities will take their demands for better working conditions seriously. Teaching and research assistants at 16 private universities have filed petitions or participated in elections to form unions since the 2016 labor board ruling, according to National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining.