Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Labor Board Heads Back to the 19th Century
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They usually put in at least 20 hours of work a week. The places they work could not possibly operate without them. Yet their pay is generally at or below the poverty level and most lack health insurance or any other fringe benefit.

And now the seemingly clueless National Labor Relations Board has stripped from them -- the teaching and research assistants at the country's private colleges and universities -- the right to seek better conditions through unionization, as so many other workers have done.

Ah, but the NLRB says they are not workers at all, because they are graduate students. They are indeed students. But they also conduct many - if not most - undergraduate classes at the schools where they study, often while also trying to raise young children on their meager pay and benefits. They lecture, grade papers and exams, lead discussion groups, tutor and counsel students whose exposure to professors is almost solely in lecture halls, and act as major aides in the research that preoccupies most regular faculty members.

That sounds an awful lot like work to me, as it did to the labor board in 2000, when it first granted the student employees union rights. But the NLRB's majority, then made up of Democratic appointees of President Clinton, has been displaced by Republican appointees of President Bush, who don't think it's work at all. However difficult, time-consuming and essential it is, performing such tasks does not a worker make if he or she happens to be a student, according to the peculiar reasoning of the new board majority.

The majority said, honestly, that because graduate employees spend more time and energy on matters other than work - on their studies, that is - they should not have the right to unionization guaranteed workers by the National Labor Relations Act.

Well, then, I guess very few of us should have union rights. There certainly are plenty of workaholics around, but most of us still follow the old standard that only one-third of our time and energy be devoted to work. You know, "Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will."

As President Edward McElroy of the American Federation of Teachers says, "Graduate employees obviously are workers. If members of the NLRB can't recognize a worker when they see one, they shouldn't be on a national labor board."

Good point. But President Bush did not appoint the three members of the majority to the board in order to protect the interests of workers, even though one of the NLRB's main legal obligations is to protect and expand workers' union rights. Like other Bush appointees in federal agencies concerned with labor matters, their purpose is instead to thwart unionization despite the law.

Consider their declaration, in taking away the union rights of graduate employees, that "there is a significant risk, even a strong likelihood, that the collective bargaining process will be detrimental to the educational process."

Detrimental? You mean it's not educational learning how to win, protect and exercise basic rights, how to bargain effectively to improve your life and that of others, how to join together with those who share your needs and interests, how to compromise with those who have conflicting needs and interests?

It certainly would be most helpful to the graduate employees' pursuit of an education if they could count on the decent pay and benefits that unionization could bring them for doing the work that's essential for the educating of their fellow students.

Those who run the employees' workplaces beg to differ. One of their chief spokesmen, Sheldon Steinbach of the American Council on Education, is particularly upset that the previous granting of union rights to the employees "threatened the traditional relationship between colleges and their graduate student assistants."

You know, that authoritarian relationship in which those who did the work had no voice, no choice but to do whatever they were asked to do, on whatever terms they were offered, take it or leave it. Some tradition.

The NLRB rendered its decision to uphold such 19th century wisdom on July 15 in rejecting a petition for union recognition from the graduate employees at Brown University. Like those at a growing number of other colleges and universities, they belong to an affiliate of the United Auto Workers, which has been organizing white-collar workers as its core of blue-collar workers has diminished.

The UAW and the American Federation of Teachers, which also has been organizing, promise that won't be the end of it. They're continuing what has become a rapidly-expanding organizing drive while their lawyers prepare to challenge the board decision.

The unions already have won contracts covering thousands of teaching and research assistants at more than three-dozen public colleges and universities. They've been able to continue seeking union rights and contracts from such institutions despite the national labor board ruling. That's because the ruling covers only private colleges and universities. Public schools are governed by state rather than federal labor law and many states have given student employees the right to unionization.

So add discriminatory treatment to the great harm already being done the young men and women whose work at private schools is absolutely essential to the functioning of that vital segment of the educational system.

President Bush's NLRB appointees could use a large dose of education themselves -- lessons to make clear to them that the laws they administer are intended to guarantee the same basic labor rights to all who work for a living, no matter what their jobs and no matter where they work.

Copyright Dick Meister