At any given time, there are thousands of graduate students across the country working as teaching and research assistants. These students may conduct college courses, perform research in a lab, or work with professors on special projects. In exchange, the grad students usually receive a relatively small stipend and course credit.
For many graduate students, the money that they earn teaching courses is not enough to survive. Some are fortunate enough to have a spouse or partner who works full time; others often work second jobs to make ends meet. According to Glassdoor, graduate students can expect to earn about $28,000 per year.
Many people believe that one of the reasons that graduate students are paid so poorly is because unlike other workers, grad students at private universities have not been allowed to unionize. Grad students at public colleges have been able to unionize for years under various state laws. However, the National Labor Relation Board (NLRB) had consistently ruled that private university graduate students had no right to organize. For the sake of comparison, there are currently 629 public 4-year colleges in the country enrolling 6.8 million students, and 1,845 private universities with 4.1 million students. Of the estimated 17.4 million people enrolled in higher education around the country, only about 2 million are graduate students.
The NLRB, the government agency which protects employees’ right to unionize, recently changed course with a case involving Columbia University. Grad students at Columbia attempted to organize to increase their voice on campus. The grad students wanted to have a say in issues like how they are paid and what type of health insurance they would receive, but received resistance from the teaching staff. Eventually, the group of students filed a petition with the NLRB to review the case.
The NLRB had previously ruled on this issue in a case involving Brown University in 2004, where the agency found that grad students had a primarily educational, rather economic relationship with their university, and were more like students than employees.
In the Columbia case, the NLRB changed course. The agency found that the grad students could be considered employees if they are paid for work that university supervises. The university argued that allowing students to unionize would grad students to have control over things like how many classes they teach and how many students are in a class. Many universities believe that they should control how much grad students are required to work, and that a union would be detrimental to a school’s existing teaching hierarchy.
The NLRB disagreed, and expressed confidence that professors and grad students would be able to work out such issues on their own. The agency ruled 3 to 1 that student assistants were statutory employees under National Labor Relations Act. The NLRB found that there was nothing in the statute excluding student employees, and therefore the grad students would be allowed to unionize.
The new decision will affect all graduate students in private universities like the University of Southern California and Pepperdine University. Grad students will be able to band together to demand changes like higher pay or better health insurance. Overall, teaching and research assistance should have more leverage to negotiate their employment contracts and force their employers to pay them what they are worth.