Response to Zimmer and Diermeier on the NLRB’s Columbia Ruling

As professors at the University of Chicago who value, on the one hand, the special relationship between faculty members and graduate students and, on the other hand, the important work done by all those who teach and do research on our campus, we welcome the recent decision of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) affirming that teaching and research assistants at private universities are employees under federal labor law, and thus can form and join unions.

In their August 24, 2016 email to faculty and graduate students, President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Daniel Diermeier express their opposition to a union of graduate student employees at the University of Chicago. Notably, they do not dispute the NLRB’s claim that “a graduate student may be both a student and an employee; a university may be both the student’s educator and employer” (Case 02–RC–143012, p. 7). It is therefore striking that although President Zimmer and Provost Diermeier say a good deal about the possible effects of unionization on the student-teacher relationship, they have chosen to say nothing about its possible effects on the employee-employer relationship. As a result, they appear to concede the principal contention of those who favor unionization: namely, that unionization would lead to improved working conditions for student employees.

The President and Provost limit their critical remarks to expressions of concern that a labor union “could” undermine “the special and individual nature of students’ educational experiences” and “impede students’ overall educational goals.” In response, we draw attention specifically to the following paragraph in the NLRB ruling, which observed:

“The Brown University Board failed to demonstrate that collective bargaining between a university and its employed graduate students cannot coexist successfully with student-teacher relationships, with the educational process, and with the traditional goals of higher education. Labor law scholars have aptly criticized the Brown University decision as offering ‘no empirical support’ for its claims, even though ‘those assertions are empirically testable.'” (Case 02–RC–143012, p. 7)

Many world-class universities—both public and private—have student employee unions. If unionization is damaging to graduate student education, there should by now be some evidence of that. The email from President Zimmer and Provost Diermeier provides no such evidence.

Reasonable people may disagree about the wisdom of the NLRB’s ruling. There can be no disagreement, however, that student employees now have the right to collectively determine how they will relate to the university that employs them.