Fighting for the Right to Bargain and Unionize


A proposed rule by the National Labor Relations Board would bar some 81,000 graduate assistants on private campuses from the right to engage in collective action to improve their working conditions.

Now, with a new study published in the Journal of Collective Bargaining in the Academy, Hunter College Prof. William A. Herbert and Ph.D. candidate Joseph van der Naald (of Hunter College and The Graduate Center) aim to provide the NLRB with necessary research to help make its decision regarding the rule.

“With this information they can make a better-informed decision that we believe may set a strong case for showing that students have an economic role in the institutions they’re enrolled in and the work that they do,” van der Naald tells SUM.

The pair examined the terms of 42 current collective bargaining agreements involving graduate and undergraduate student employees in the United States. They analyzed five decades of collective bargaining history, precedent, and contracts, and found consistently positive economic relationships between student employees and their institutions.

The NLRB’s proposed rule would exclude graduate assistants at private schools from coverage under the National Labor Relations Act. This means that they would not be able to organize to demand better wages, health care, or working conditions, and they couldn’t challenge retaliation from institutions if such demands are made.

The NLRB received more than 13,000 comments from the public regarding the rule.

“Graduate student unions have been mobilizing their membership to both make public comments and respond to them. This is an important way of getting people involved and making sure they understand the implications of these court decisions, which could really affect the ways they interact with their universities,” van der Naald says.

Those who have argued for the exclusion claim that allowing graduate assistants to unionize would negatively impact their relationship with faculty, according to the duo. However, van der Naald and Herbert note that graduate assistants at CUNY have been allowed union representation for at least 50 years with no threat to faculty-graduate student relations.

The authors concluded: “The failure of the NLRB to closely analyze and address the decades of relevant collective bargaining history, precedent, and contracts, and to directly solicit testimony from those who have negotiated and administered the contracts, will undermine the validity and legitimacy of any final rule.”

Beyond SUM

Explore This Work

A Different Set of Rules? NLRB Proposed Rule Making and Student Worker Unionization Rights
Journal of Collective Bargaining in the Academy, 2020

Work By

Joseph van der Naald (Ph.D. candidate, Sociology) | Profile 1
William A. Herbert (Distinguished Lecturer and Executive Director, National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, Labor Law) | Profile 1