For many years, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) held that graduate student assistants at private universities such as Boston College are not employees entitled to unionize because their relationship with their universities was primarily an educational, not an economic one. In the summer of 2016, in a decision involving Columbia University, the NLRB reversed that long-standing precedent and ruled that private university graduate teaching and research assistants are employees for purposes of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), and therefore, are entitled to be represented by unions if they so choose. This FAQ attempts to answer the many questions that may be raised by graduate students and other members of our campus community.
A union is an organization that serves as an agent representing a specific group of employees. This group is called a “bargaining unit”. A union negotiates on behalf of a bargaining unit to establish collective terms and conditions of employment, such as pay and benefits. When represented by a union, no individual employee is permitted to engage in separate negotiations over their individual employment terms. Unions also represent their members when disputes arise over contracts governing their work. Often, larger unions also use their resources to participate at the state and federal level in lobbying to influence legislation and in political activity to influence elections.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is an independent federal agency created to interpret and enforce the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA); the federal law governing collective bargaining and labor activity such as organizing. Headquartered in Washington, DC, it has regional offices across the country, including one in Boston.
A specific group of employees with a clear and identifiable community of interests represented by one authorized union for the purposes of collective bargaining and labor contract administration. The NLRB determines appropriate bargaining units.
The UAW is a labor union representing workers in the United States and Canada. UAW members work in industries as diverse as autos and auto parts, health care, casino gambling, and higher education. It total, the UAW represents more than 400,000 workers, of which about 25,000 are in higher education. UAW’s main headquarters are located in Detroit, Michigan.
Collective bargaining is the process by which an employer and a union, as the exclusive representative of a bargaining unit, attempt to negotiate the terms and conditions of employment. Although the process usually results in a contract, there are times when the parties are unable to reach agreement. The law (NLRA) requires the parties to bargain in good faith, but does not require either party to agree to any proposal put forward by its counterpart.
A union contract or collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is a legally binding contract between employees within the bargaining unit and the employer, arrived at through negotiations between the employer and the union, which sets forth the terms and conditions of employment.
Academic freedom allows all Boston College faculty to express their views on any and all subjects. As a practical matter, however, rules that generally govern communication between employees and their managers and supervisors must be followed by faculty when addressing union-related issues with student assistants. This does not mean the faculty cannot express their opinions about these issues. Members of the faculty have the right to express their opinion on these subjects as long as they do so in a manner that avoids what may be considered under the law to be “threats, interrogations, promises of benefits, or surveillance.”
Yes, private schools like BC are different from public universities when it comes to union representation of graduate students. Unlike public Universities, which are governed by various state labor laws, BC, as a private University, is governed by the NLRA for all labor relations matters.
This distinction is significant. First, unlike many states that have written into their labor laws provisions that protect academic decisions from the collective bargaining process, the NLRA has not been tailored to address the needs of higher education, and so these protections are not currently included in the law. As a result, there is more leeway for unions to attempt to be involved in academic matters such as TA and RA assignments at private universities. This does not mean that unions will be involved in these matters at private universities; it simply means that they may seek to be involved. Second, state labor laws typically prohibit strikes, whereas the NLRA contains no such prohibition.
Normally, a group of workers seeking to unionize will affiliate with an established labor union for purposes of organizing a new chapter. Once the group has affiliated with a labor union, organizers employed by the union will collect “authorization cards”; written declarations signed by employees stating they want a particular union to be their exclusive bargaining agent. If a union collects enough cards to constitute a valid “showing of interest” (a showing that 30 percent or more of the employees the union seeks to represent signed a card), the union can file a “representation petition” with the NLRB. The NLRB will then hold a secret-ballot election approximately 2 to 3 weeks from the filing of the petition.
Graduate students have the right to sign an authorization card, and also have the right not to sign.
No. The act of signing an authorization card does not commit the signer to vote in any particular way in a union representation hearing. The signer is free to vote in an election either for or against union representation.
Yes, if the graduate student is an eligible voter. A graduate student does not need to sign an authorization card to vote in a union representation election. Signing – or not signing – an authorization card does not influence a graduate student’s ability to participate in the election process and does not compel a graduate student to vote in any particular manner.
The Regional Director typically assigns an NLRB agent to investigate whether the employer in question is covered by the NLRA, whether the petition has the requisite 30 percent showing of interest, and whether the parties will consent to an election. As in the present instance where a hearing commenced on March 16, 2017, a hearing is typically held 8 days after the petition is filed.
During this period, the union will attempt to convince members of the proposed bargaining unit to vote in favor of the union. Boston College believes strongly in the free exchange of ideas and views. During this period, BC will seek to educate potential bargaining unit members of the impact union representation will have on them and the University.
As noted above, a representation election is a secret ballot election conducted and supervised by representatives of the NLRB.
The NLRB oversees all aspects of the election. Voting booths are set up in an easily accessible campus location or locations, and those eligible to vote may cast a vote by secret ballot during specified hours on a specified day or days.
Every eligible person should vote because the election outcome is determined by the majority of those who vote, not a majority of those eligible to vote. Thus, union representation for non-voters will be decided by those who vote. “Eligible voters” are employees who are part of the defined voting unit at the time of election. Status as a research or teaching assistant at the time of the election, not status as a graduate student, will likely determine voter eligibility in any potential representation election for BC graduate students.
No. International student status does not impact eligibility. The process for determining who is included in the bargaining unit applies to all graduate students regardless of international status.
No. The results of any election would bind everyone in the bargaining unit, including students who do not vote, students who vote ‘no”, and future students who won’t have a chance to vote.
No. The NLRA requires employers and unions to bargain collectively with respect to “wages, hours, and other terms of employment.” Bargaining does not occur until after the union has won the representation election. The union’s agenda and priorities for such collective bargaining are typically determined by union leadership in consultation with its members.
The outcome of the election is determined by a majority of the votes actually cast. It is thus possible for a union to be elected by less than a majority of the individuals in the bargaining unit.
Yes. There is a one-year waiting period after an election until another election can be held. If a majority of voters voted against union representation, the same union or a different union could seek an election one year later.
Union elections are not like political elections, which occur regularly to determine voters’ representatives and opinions. Once a union is certified as the exclusive representative of a bargaining unit, it remains so indefinitely and will represent all students who will matriculate in the future unless the union is “decertified.” The process to decertify a union is complex, and may take several years, and cannot be commenced until one year after the election, or while the labor contract is in place.
If a union wins an election, then the union is certified as the exclusive representative of the graduate students in the bargaining unit.
No. Under the federal law, one cannot be forced to join a union. However, a union can negotiate a provision in a collective bargaining agreement that requires non-members to pay an agency fee to the union in order to teach or serve as a research assistant. The agency fee is typically about the same amount as union dues.
We do not know. In a unionized setting, wages, hours and other terms and conditions are subject to negotiation. Stipend levels, remuneration, and benefits may change; there is no guarantee that they will increase.
Yes. Representation by a union would be on an episodic basis for many graduate students at Boston College. Under the NLRB’s decision, a private sector graduate student who teaches or serves as a research assistant in a given semester is only considered an employee and entitled to union representation during the period in which he or she teaches or serves as a research assistant.
The NLRA requires employers and unions to bargain over “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment”. The NLRB and federal courts have not yet addressed what “terms and conditions of employment” are for graduate students whose teaching, research or service is part of their academic training. The NLRB stated in its recent decision that academic decisions remain the prerogative of the University, but the scope of this domain is not yet clear.
There is no mandated timetable for bargaining. If negotiations are contentious or involve numerous complex issues, it could take months or even years to reach a contract. For example, at the University of California at Berkeley, it took seven years to reach a contract.
The two sides have a legal duty to bargain in good faith. If an “impasse” in bargaining is reached, the employer has the right to unilaterally implement its last proposal, although bargaining must continue. Determining whether an “impasse” has occurred, however, is difficult and can lead to lengthy litigation at the NLRB.
If the union calls a strike, union members could be fined by the union if found to be not in compliance with the strike action. Academic activities regarded as work by the union contract such as teaching and research would be suspended for the duration of the strike, which may delay a student’s time-to-degree or research agenda.
Sometimes union dues are a flat annual rate, while other times they are a percentage of wages. Ultimately, the union determines the dues rate for a particular bargaining unit. However, by way of example, at New York University (NYU), the UAW charges its members 2% of total compensation during the semesters in which a graduate student is employed in a union position. At NYU, dues are automatically deducted from every paycheck. According to the UAW, total compensation for purposes of dues includes wages from “union work” (e.g. from serving as a teaching assistant and/or research assistant) and the NYU funding package. In addition to dues, the UAW charges each member an initiation fee of approximately $50 (depending on pay grade). This is charged by the union to all current and future students.
Per the contract between NYU and UAW, research assistants received a 2.25% increase beginning academic year 2016-17.
Agency fees are the fees required by virtually every collective bargaining agreement (including the contract between NYU and UAW) to be paid to the union by employees who are represented by a union, but who choose not to be dues-paying members. If a position is covered by a union contract and filled by a non-dues paying graduate student, the non-dues paying graduate student will be required to pay an agency fee.
The agency fee Q and A was included to make the point that even if one chooses not to officially join the union such person will still be required to pay a fee to the union.
Yes. The union negotiates on behalf of all members of the bargaining unit. Even if a graduate student disagrees with the union or a provision in the contract, he or she is bound by it.
No, not unless the contract granted the University the flexibility to do so, or if the union consented to the change. In fact, at NYU, UAW has charged NYU with committing unfair labor practices for, among other reasons, increasing stipends and partially subsidizing the cost of health insurance for doctoral students in NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, without the union’s consent.
The General Counsel of the NLRB has taken the position that faculty members are “supervisors” acting on behalf of their employer with respect to their relationship with teaching assistants. As such, there are certain limits on what can be discussed with graduate students relating to terms and conditions of their service.
There could be a diminishment of the collegial relationship between some students and their mentors once faculty members are placed in the role of “supervisors” and students in the role of “employees” under the jurisdiction of the NLRB. It is reasonable to foresee potential unfair labor practices being filed at the NLRB having a chilling effect on the wide-ranging discussions typically had between faculty and student. Moreover, a union contract would likely establish formal procedures for students to bring grievances against faculty members – procedures that could exacerbate conflicts between students and professors. Once the target of a grievance, faculty members might be restrained in further interactions with the complaining students out of a concern that legitimate scholarly criticism or disagreement might be misinterpreted as retaliatory.
We don’t know. If such activities are characterized as part of required work as an RA or TA, funding for conferences, travel and other work could be subject to negotiation with the union.