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Addressing Potential Unionization by Student Faculty Assistants

Vicki Higman
April 2021
Learn actions to take as your institution prepares for union organizing activity.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in March 2021 withdrew a proposed rule that would have prohibited graduate and undergraduate teaching and research assistants from being considered “employees.” As a result, they remain entitled to unionize and bargain collectively with their educational institutions.

To prepare for possible union organizing activity, administrators should consider the following actions.

Determine Your Institution’s Position on Union Activity

Campus leadership and the Board of Trustees should determine your institution’s response to a demand for recognition by a union claiming to represent a majority of its student assistant employees. Depending on your campus culture and values, your institution may choose one of these options:

  • Remain neutral.
  • Mount a vigorous opposition to union organizing.
  • Grant voluntary recognition to a union that presents authorization cards from a majority of the student employees it seeks to represent.

Educate Campus Leadership

Educate leaders about your institution’s rights and responsibilities under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA extensively regulates how employers may respond to union activity, enforced through an “unfair labor practice” process that could jeopardize your institution if it acts inappropriately.

Who may join a union and what groups may be unionized together also may be the subject of disagreement and NLRB action. Consult with qualified labor relations counsel to provide training on the do’s and don’ts of responding to union organizing activity and how particular groups of student employees might be represented on campus.

Craft Policies

Develop, or review and revise, written policies regulating the working conditions and treatment of teaching and research assistants. In some cases, informal practices may exist in some departments but not others.

Even if written policies exist, individual faculty may not know there are rules governing their relationship with student assistants. Train faculty and remind them periodically of your institution’s expectations for treatment of student assistants.

Identify Issues That Inspire Organizing Activity

In many instances, employees organize out of dissatisfaction with how the institution treats them, not necessarily because they believe they are underpaid. Conduct an anonymous survey — before there is any sign of union activity — to uncover specific concerns your institution can effectively address. Teaching and research assistants’ common concerns include:

  • Health care benefits
  • Child care
  • Leave
  • Required after-hours personal assistance to busy faculty members

If pay is an issue, conduct a salary survey and benchmarking with comparable institutions. This information also may help your institution demonstrate that market data support its compensation structure.

Ensure Employees Can Express Concerns

Develop an effective channel for teaching and research assistants to express concerns. Normal grievance channels for administrative personnel are often staffed by human resources professionals; student employees working for professors may deem this ineffective. Some institutions have graduate student councils that meet periodically with the Dean or Provost to air concerns.

Ensure your institution’s student assistants are aware of and able to access a council or complaint process.

Additional Resources

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