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How letting grad students unionize could change the labor movement and college sports

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Graduate students at private colleges who work as teaching or research assistants have the right to form unions and bargain collectively, the National Labor Relations Board decided Tuesday.

The decision, which narrowly deals with the question of whether United Auto Workers could unionize Columbia graduate students, applies to graduate students at all private colleges and universities. Graduate students’ right to unionize at public higher education institutions is determined by the states in which they reside.

To put this in context, this will affect a relatively small number of people: Only about one-third of American graduate students attend private colleges, about 133,000 students in all. And nowhere near all of them work as teaching or research assistants.

Still, the NLRB’s decision that students can be both students and employees, and its argument that unionization doesn’t affect academic freedom, could end up with wide-reaching consequences. Here are three bigger reasons the decision matters.

1) The nature of unions is changing to include more white-collar workers

Unionizing graduate students isn’t particularly new. Nine states allow graduate students at public universities to organize, a process that began nearly 50 years ago at the University of Wisconsin Madison. About 68,000 graduate students nationwide are union members — a fact the National Labor Relations Board cited as part of its rationale for determining that graduate student unions don’t threaten colleges’ academic freedom.

So in a narrow sense, the prospect of adding some graduate students at private colleges to the mix isn’t revolutionary.

But the decision fits into a bigger trend playing out within the labor movement, which is increasingly organizing workers in white-collar professions — such as lawyers, internet journalists, and college professors and graduate students. As professional workers make up a bigger share of the labor force, these professions, which haven’t typically been unionized, are one of the labor movement’s best hopes for growth. College campuses in particular have been fertile ground as adjunct professors have organized.

Graduate students won’t be students forever. (That’s one reason colleges argued they should not be allowed to organize — an argument the NLRB discarded.) Eventually, they’ll get jobs in academia or in other fields, and they’ll come with union affiliations and affinities they might not have otherwise had. So allowing teaching and research assistants to organize isn’t just a short-term growth opportunity for the labor movement but a long-term one as well.

2) The question of which students can organize isn’t closed yet

The NLRB under President Obama has generally been favorable to union organizing on college campuses, with one big exception: It declined to assert jurisdiction when football players at Northwestern attempted to organize, saying that allowing a union drive at one university would destabilize football conferences made up of both public and private universities with different rules on unionization.

The board didn’t rule in the Northwestern case on whether student athletes are employees. It did say the case was unlike any it had seen before, and suggested that if the union movement were more wide-ranging (if it had included all private colleges in the Football Bowl Subdivision, for example), an NLRB decision might be less destabilizing. Still, the decision effectively killed union organizing in college sports in the short term.

Tuesday’s decision that graduate students can unionize doesn’t change any of that. But by reversing an earlier NLRB decision from 2004 that held graduate students weren’t employees, it does take away one argument that colleges employed against student athlete unionization. Northwestern had used the earlier decision to argue that if graduate students weren’t employees, football players certainly were not.

3) The 2016 election results matter a lot to graduate students now

When it comes to deciding whether graduate students can unionize, this isn’t the NLRB’s first rodeo, or even its second. The board has ruled on the issue three times in the past 16 years, as changes in administration have led to shifts in the board’s makeup — and, consequently, changes in how union-friendly it’s inclined to be.

Tuesday’s decision reverses a 2004 decision that found that Brown University graduate students were students, not employees, and could not unionize. That decision was also a reversal of an earlier decision: In 2000, in the waning days of the Clinton administration, the board had ruled that graduate students at New York University could form unions.

It’s not clear if the NLRB will continue to ping-pong back and forth on this issue as control of the White House changes hands. But history suggests it could — and while the narrow issue of graduate student unionization is probably unlikely to determine anyone’s vote, it’s a reminder of all the smaller issues over which a president and his or her appointees have a good deal of power.

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