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The Government Is Trying to Strip Student Workers of the Ability to Unionize

Striking teaching assistants protest on the campus of Columbia University in New York.
As an organization deeply devoted to both academic freedom and free association, we won’t stand by it.
Striking teaching assistants protest on the campus of Columbia University in New York.
Arianna Demas,
Brennan Fellow,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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January 30, 2020

The federal government recently proposed a rule that would strip graduate student workers of their ability to organize under the National Labor Relations Act, the law that grants most private sector employees the right to engage in collective bargaining. In justifying its proposed rule, the National Labor Relations Board, a government agency, asserted that allowing graduate student assistants to bargain collectively would “uniquely imperil[ ] the protection of academic freedoms.”

The government is wrong.

Like any other employee, student workers seek to organize to improve their working conditions — not to exert control over academic matters. “Protecting academic freedom” is just the government’s phony justification for limiting workers’ ability to unionize, and, as an organization deeply devoted to both academic freedom and free association, we won’t stand by it. That’s why we’re opposing the proposed rule.

Academic freedom is undoubtedly crucial to the spread of ideas on university campuses. The role of a university is to teach and encourage its students to freely engage with new topics, constantly inquiring, questioning, and evaluating different perspectives and perceptions. The ability to do so independently and freely is critical not only for students, but also for professors and other members of the campus community. An infringement on this essential aspect of education would be cause for concern, but there is no reason to believe that collective bargaining over employment conditions will have any effect on the academic freedom of schools.

To the contrary, student workers are seeking to bargain over their wages, hours, and health care — not over what topics will and will not be covered in a biology class. In recent collective bargaining agreements reached between universities like NYU, Tufts, Brandeis, and their student employees, the heart of the bargaining has focused on core economic issues and conditions of employment.

If anything, rather than requiring the exclusion of graduate student workers from the NLRA, the principles the First Amendment rest upon suggest just the opposite. The role of the First Amendment is to protect our ability to speak out, to join together on the issues we care about, and to rally for change. As the Supreme Court has long recognized, “The practice of persons sharing common views banding together to achieve a common end is deeply embedded in the American political process.” When employees form a union, they are doing just that: banding together over issues of mutual interest to guarantee their ability to communicate serious workplace concerns, and elevate their voices so these concerns are heard.

The ACLU has defended the associational rights of workers throughout the last century and continues to do so now. For example, in Farm Labor Organizing Committee v. Stein, we are fighting to protect the ability of North Carolina’s farmworkers to organize and join collective bargaining agreements with their employers. From farmworkers to graduate student assistants, all workers should be able to advocate for better working conditions, pay, and benefits for themselves and their families.

If particular schools remain concerned about the preservation of their academic freedom despite the fact that First Amendment principles actually weigh against this rule, there are precautionary measures they could take. Schools could explicitly exclude all academic decision making from the scope of bargaining, or state that the sole authority over all academic matters rests with the university. While by no means required by the First Amendment, provisions like these should reassure institutions that their academic freedom will be preserved through the bargaining process.

As the agency “vested with the power to safeguard employees’ rights to organize,” the National Labor Relations Board should be supporting — not undercutting — student workers’ ability to effect change in the workplace. Reconsidering this proposed rule would be a start.

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