Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 28, 2020
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COURTESY OF STEPHANIE LEE TRU members rallied to unionize graduate workers at a rally in Sept. 2018.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) proposed a rule on  Sept. 23 which, if it passes, will prevent graduate students from being considered employees of their university. In October, Teachers and Researchers United (TRU), an unofficial Hopkins graduate student union, started a petition opposing the proposed rule. 

TRU member Joanna Behrman, a History of Science and Technology graduate student who helped write the petition, stated that around 180 members of the Hopkins community have signed it to date. 

Behrman explained that recognizing graduate students as employees allows them federal protections from possible administrative retaliation that the proposed rule would take away. 

“Graduate students should be protected and shouldn’t be retaliated against, for example, for bringing up issues of lab safety with their supervisor,” she said. “This doesn’t mean that Hopkins will immediately decide that, ‘Well, now that it doesn’t have federal protection, we can retaliate all we want to.’ But it does mean that there is a disturbing lack of protection for what should be crucial rights.”

Currently, the NLRB is accepting comments on its proposed rule change until Dec. 16. TRU will continue accepting signatures on its petition until then, after which Behrman said that TRU members will deliver it to the NLRB offices.

Vice Provost for Graduate and Professional Education Nancy Kass wrote in an email to The News-Letter that regardless of which way the NLRB rules, the University’s policies will not change. 

“This does not in any way diminish the important contributions by graduate students to our teaching and research enterprise, nor our broader commitment to graduate students having a positive and high quality experience,” Kass wrote.

If passed, the proposed rule will overturn a previous NLRB ruling from December 2016 that gave graduate students the federal right to unionize after a group of Columbia University students petitioned to the government. When the NLRB switched to a Republican majority in September 2017, however, the Board began to transition away from Obama-era policies. 

“Students who perform any services for compensation, including, but not limited to, teaching or research, at a private college or university in connection with their studies are not ‘employees’ within the meaning of Section 2(3) of the Act,” the new NLRB proposal reads.

The 2016 ruling was part of a larger national trend at private universities to increase graduate student representation through unionizing. While some universities have federally recognized graduate student unions, other universities like Tufts and Brandeis have chosen to voluntarily recognize their graduate student unions.

TRU member and Physics & Astronomy graduate student Peter Weck hopes that even if the proposed NLRB rule does pass, the University still chooses to recognize TRU as its graduate student union.

“We’re at a historical moment where Hopkins can make the choice of being on the right side of history,” he said. “The University will face a choice between siding with the vehemently anti-labor Trump administration or with the needs and desires of its own students and workers.”

At their Stand Up, Speak Out rally on Sept. 26, 2018, TRU members called on the University to recognize graduate students as employees. During a December 2018 interview with The News-Letter, University President Ronald J. Daniels explained that University administrators had not yet taken an official position on voluntarily recognizing a graduate student union.

Kass noted that this remains the University’s position today.

“While a definitive conclusion has not been reached, there are a number of existing student representative organizations… that offer important forums for discussing ongoing concerns that are common to students within schools,” she wrote. “The University has continued its investments and support of PhD students through various policies and benefits such as health/dental, improved stipends in some parts of the university, childcare and new university-wide policies on mentoring and professional development.”

Members of the Graduate Representative Organization (GRO) Executive Board explained that there are mechanisms in place that allow them to work with University officials to improve graduate student life. GRO Co-Chairs Eugenia Volkova and Elliot Wainwright noted that they meet with administrators on a biweekly basis.

Volkova added that although an official union does not currently exist, there are other means through which graduate students can voice concerns about aspects like health care. She referenced the Provost’s Advisory Team on Healthcare (PATH), which worked with the GRO to push for several improvements to graduate student insurance, which were implemented before fall 2018. 

She and Wainwright explained that while the GRO is not taking an official stance on graduate student unionization, they are circulating TRU’s petition. In an email sent to the graduate student body on Oct. 30, they discussed why they wanted graduate students to be aware of the proposed rule change and submit comments to the NLRB.

“It is important for graduate students to be able to at least discuss and request changes to their working conditions including, but not limited to, better pay, lab safety or deciding whether or not to join a union,” they wrote. “Whether or not you support unionization, it is important to make your voice heard regarding graduate student ‘employee’ status.”

Volkova emphasized that GRO would be open to collaborating with TRU regarding improving graduate student conditions, though the two groups serve different roles within the graduate student community.

“We’ve discussed meeting in the future. We’re open and willing to work with them when it makes sense for us and for graduate students and also for our abilities and what we can do,” Volkova said.

GRO Advocacy Co-Chair Timothy Nickels added that even if the NLRB ruling does not immediately impact Hopkins graduate students, if passed, it would make it more difficult for students to negotiate with the University to address any major future concerns that might arise.

“If we are explicitly not considered employees and we have the right to collective bargaining taken away — if any issues were to arise, it would shift the power away from graduate students,” Nickels said. “This policy change might also lead to higher risks for graduate students in departments that don’t guarantee their funding.”

Behrman agreed, adding that she has seen many crises arise during her time as a Hopkins graduate student that a union could have addressed.

“I’ve seen too many things go wrong. It’s happened too frequently that I’ve seen individual friends of mine be exploited, be pushed out of their programs, be emotionally abused by people in power,” she said.

On Thursday, Dec. 12, TRU will hold a work-in on M-level, during which graduate students will perform duties related to their roles at the University in order to protest the proposed rule change.

Weck noted that TRU will continue to fight for a University-recognized union even if the ruling eliminates the possibility of a federally-recognized union.

“It definitely puts us in a weaker position,” he said. “Even though losing federal recognition as employees is a symbolic loss, there’s still a lot we can do here to improve our working conditions and ultimately get recognized by the university as a labor union.”

Behrman echoed these sentiments, specifically emphasizing that the political views that Hopkins holds as an institution need to translate into their policies toward graduate students.

“How can Hopkins have [the SNF] Agora Institute for democracy and not be open to one of the most democratic forms of institutions in history: a labor union which is elected by its members and negotiates with employers and represents some often very marginalized and exploited populations?” she said. “Unions are a key tenet of democracy.”

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