Grad Students Gain Support for Unionization


By Liz Carey

Athens, OH ( – Graduate students at Ohio University hope they can rally together to become a unionized organization.  

The group will meet today (Wednesday, Sept. 6) to encourage graduate students to become part of their Graduate Employee Organization, that focuses on providing better working conditions and benefits for the students.

Unionization of graduate students is a trend that has progressed across the country since August 2016 when the National Labor Relations Board ruled in a 3-1 decision that graduate students at private institutions are considered employees, which would give them collective bargaining rights. The decision propelled students at universities like The University of Chicago, Duke University, Yale University, Cornell University and Harvard University to begin forming unions.

At Ohio University, students are asking the administration to provide them with better family leave policies, a lessening of fees, better insurance and protections for foreign graduate students.

Elliot Long, an interdisciplinary doctoral candidate, one of the union’s organizers, told the Athens News that the group hoped to force the university to negotiate with them, “even if they are not legally required to do so. We are starting a petition next week with our list of demands of the administration, and we are hoping to get at least 500 signatures for that.”

Carly Leatherwood, spokesperson for Ohio University, said the school’s president, Dr. Duane Nellis will meet with the students to hear their concerns in the future.

“Dr. Nellis is always open to hearing the concerns of our students and has indicated as much,” Leatherwood said in an email interview.

Last week, the Penn State chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) sent a letter endorsing the students’ effort to form the Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE) to the university trustees as well as to the Penn State President Eric Barron, Provost Nick Jones, Vice Provost Dean Regina Vasilatos-Younken. 

The letter asks that the fledgling chapter should be allowed to “hold elections without interference from the university administration, AAUP chapter president Michelle Rodino-Colocino told Centre Daily.

“The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board has a hearing concerning this issue on Sept. 5,” Rodino-Cocino said in a statement. “In that regard, the AAUP affirms the rights of graduate assistants (GAs) to decide for themselves whether or not they want to form a union. As the letter outlines, the administration must not attempt to obstruct the CGE election process or falsely represent GAs as not working for the university… The GAs work hard and spend long hours teaching and conducting research, thereby enhancing the reputation of the university. The GAs’ efforts to seek representation via CGE promise to further enhance this reputation and improve relationships between faculty and students. We call on the university administration to stop all efforts to impede CGE elections.”

If successful, the union would join more than 30 other graduate student unions at universities across the country almost all of them at public institutions. Currently, 23 institutions are fighting for university recognition. The students say increasing tuition, plummeting wages, meager healthcare and overwhelming workloads are forcing them to seek collective bargaining rights.

At Yale, students staged hunger strikes and sit-ins to protest the administration’s opposition to unionization. At Duke, administrators hired Proskauer Rose, a law firm known for its work against employees in the sports world, as well as union-busting at universities. At the University of Missouri, graduate students were able to form a union, only to have the university deny any recognition of it. The students sued, and the case is pending.

At the heart of the issue is whether or not graduate students are employees, and how recognizing them as employees will affect the university/student relationship. At Penn State, the university responded to requests for comment with a statement.

“Penn State views its graduate students as students, not employees,” the statement from President Dr. Eric Barron read. “Penn State does not oppose the general concept of unions of the unionization of employees, but does not believe it is appropriate for graduate students because of the nature of their relationship with the university. We are proud of our graduate students and believe that we can continue to support their individualized needs by working with them directly.” 

Lisa Powers, spokeswoman for the university, said that the university had made its position clear. 

“We do not believe a collective bargaining agreement with a union — which is designed to serve the interests of a collective whole and the union itself, rather than individual students — could ever best serve the needs of our graduate students or the University. In fact, we believe it could impede the academic and mentoring relationships Penn State has with its graduate students,” Barron’s statement which Powers provided, read.

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