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Obama May Open Door For Graduate Teaching Assistants To Unionize

This story was written by Peter F. Zhu, Harvard Crimson

Teaching assistants nationwide may be able to organize into a labor union if Barack Obama repeals a decision made by the National Labor Relations Board four years ago.

Richard B. Freeman, an economics professor who focuses on labor issues, said it was absolutely likely that the decision would be repealed. President-elect Barack Obama championed organized labor in his campaign, saying in April that its time we had a president who doesnt choke saying the word union, according to remarks on Obamas Web site.

Four years ago, a George W. Bush-appointed majority of the board declared that graduate students at private universities were not statutory employees a decision that effectively neutered collective bargaining efforts by teaching assistants and relegated student unionization to the back burner.

But even before the 2004 decision, Harvard graduate teaching assistants were lukewarm toward unionization, an attitude that may persist even if the decision is reversed.

Harvard has no union for graduate student teaching assistants, a fact that draws mixed reactions from students.

Graduate students are very well taken care of here, said Kyle M. Brown, president of the Harvard Graduate Student Council. We have a lot of ways that graduate students can get in touch with administrators. Having a big, antagonistic union may or may not be in the best interest of grad students.

Jonathan V. Hall 06, head teaching fellow for Economics 1011a: Microeconomic Theory, had a more negative take.

I think its totally inappropriate for TFs at Harvard (or at any university) to form a union, Hall wrote in an e-mail. Of course, graduate students arent paid much, but that is because they lead such phenomenally easy lives. Most of them, myself included, have never held a real job, and most if not all of them are working their way towards an even more privileged and easy life as a professor.

But while some are content without a graduate student union, Freeman said unionization at Harvard could gain support, especially with the potential for a decline in Harvard funding for grad students in the wake of the financial crisis.

If the NLRB changes its ruling and allows students at private universities to unionize and be protected under the law, the university would have to think carefully about making sure students are happy, Freeman said. So far the university has done well at that...but with the budget crisis, the endowment going down, the University might think a little differently.

While Harvard has largely avoided provoking graduate students so far, other private universities including Yale, where graduate students have already unionized have seen fierce protests and strikes by graduate students in the past.

Ariana Paulson, chair of the Yale Graduate Employees and Students Organization, said she looked forward to the Obama administrations labor-friendly stance and a new surge of excitement [for unionization] after a bunch of pretty hard years.

Because of the 2004 ruling, Yale has declined to negotiate contracts with the graduate student union there, Paulson said.

If the [NLRB] decision is reversed, that certainly gives us a leg to stand on, Paulson said. If we regained our status as workers at private institutions instead of apprentices, when we demonstrate a majority, the university would be required to recognize us.

While she acknowledged that stipend packages at Yale were probably among the best youll find, she said these achievements were largely due to their unions advocacy, and that there is further work to be done.

I think even though material conditions have improved a lot here, and were grateful, having a independent organization thats able to bargain about peoples conditions is really important to diversity and academic freedom, Paulson said. She said students should be wary of the university pushing teaching duties on graduate students or adjunct professors without providing job security.

Having a union is very important to safeguard the interest of people in these positions, Paulson said.

Ashley R. Pollock, vice president of communications for the Harvard Graduate Council, expressed similar sentiments, adding that the current economic climate and the impending risk of University cutbacks could increase a unions appeal.

Id say that in this economy, unions are certainly going to be an important resource, said Pollock, who is also both a graduate school TF and a unionized Law School faculty assistant. Its times like these that people do need to turn to the union.

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