Graduate workers at Brown University announced a landmark agreement with the university Thursday afternoon, paving the way for one of the first collective bargaining agreements for graduate employees at a private institution in the country.
Graduate teaching and research assistants at public universities have long had access to collective bargaining rights, as they fall under the jurisdiction of public sector labor law. Yet their peers at private institutions have been widely denied the ability to unionize, often due to arguments that TA and researchers’ labor is fundamentally educational in nature, and that graduate employees are closer to students than laborers.
The pact announced Thursday, between representatives of the graduate organizing group Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees (SUGSE) and university administrators, will allow workers at Brown to counter that narrative. The agreement enables the school’s approximately 1,400 graduate workers to hold a vote to unionize. An election is expected to take place this fall.
“A strong majority of Brown graduate workers, including master’s students, have pledged their support for SUGSE,” according to the press release. The group is currently affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals.
Among the benefits for establishing a union at Brown are greater security for graduate research funding, protections and grievance procedures for workplace harassment, and fairer compensation for research and teaching work, according to a listing on SUGSE’s website.
Crucially, this decision and the ensuing election will be reached outside of the influence of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Historically, the NLRB’s decisions regarding collective bargaining at private institutions has closely followed the party allegiances of its appointees, including a 2004 decision, headed by appointees under President George W. Bush, denying bargaining rights to graduate workers at Brown.
Republicans currently form a majority on the NLRB, including two appointees under President Trump. Even so, with SUGSE’s agreement with the university, graduate workers will be able to move forward with unionization efforts without fear of an intervention from a federal court.
Marley Vincent-Lindsey, a fourth-year graduate assistant in History, wrote in the press release on Thursday:
“This agreement is a powerful reminder that higher education workers across the country hold the keys to making our universities work. We look forward to turning our majority support on cards at Brown into a successful election for collective bargaining. At a time when the value of higher education is continually reduced at the hands of austerity, I am excited that this agreement continues to advance our expectations of university administrators as our employers.”