Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., introduced the Respect Graduate Student Workers Act to the Senate on Jan. 22, which would protect graduate student workers’ right to unionize.
The bill states that graduate student workers are employees and should not be excluded from this definition because of an educational relationship with an employer. The bill also grants student workers “every right and responsibility” employees have, including the right to unionize.
“For far too long, the trend in our higher education system has been going in the wrong direction: longer hours, lower pay, weaker job security, and more debt,” Sanders said in a press release. “Stronger unions and worker protections are a key part of solving this crisis in our colleges and universities.”
The bill would also prohibit the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, from finalizing or enforcing the proposed rule entitled Jurisdiction-Nonemployee Status of University and College Students Working in Connection With Their Studies, or NPRM, and any similar rule.
According to NPRM, students who perform services for financial compensation — such as teaching or research — at a private college or university in connection with their studies are not “employees,” as these relationships are primarily educational in nature, not economic. The NLRB added that the rule is intended to bring stability to an area of federal labor law that has reversed its approach three times since 2000.
As of press time, the NLRB was not able to provide a comment as the act is pending legislation.
“The past several decades have proven that the NLRB will simply shift its position depending on who is in the White House,” said Alec Uebersohn, financial secretary of United Auto Workers Local 2865, the union that represents GSIs and TAs in the UC system, in an email. “A long-term solution such as the act introduced by Sanders and (Rep. Mark) Pocan is the only way to truly provide a secure foundation for student workers to organize, unionize, and win a contract.”
This act could harm working students, according to a comment submitted by 13 Democratic senators. The senators said by proposing that student workers cannot qualify as employees, NPRM strips them of employee rights protected by the National Labor Relations Act, including the right to join together to choose labor union representation, demand fair wages and secure better working conditions.
Many graduate student workers at private universities — both those unionized and those fighting for their first contract — would be impacted the most by NPRM stating that university student workers are not employees, according to Uebersohn.
“Graduate workers are a vital part of teaching and research in colleges and universities and should have an equal voice in their workplace,” said Pocan, D-Wis., who introduced the House version, in the press release. “Every worker in every industry deserves the right to form a union, because all workers deserve respect in the workplace.”