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May 22, 2017

Graduate Students and University Debate Unionization at Hearing

Last Friday, arguments from the legal representatives of the University and the Graduate Students United (GSU) affiliates were presented before a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearing officer.

The hearing is the result of the University filing several objections against GSU’s petition to become a recognized union last week. The hearing’s ruling will determine if those objections are conceded to, which could potentially postpone GSU’s election until next September or overrule graduate students’ ability to unionize. The election, if approved, can certify GSU’s official recognition under the NLRB should a member majority vote in favor of unionizing.

The University brought two witnesses: David Nirenberg, dean of the Social Sciences Division, and Christopher Wild, deputy dean and collegiate master.

During the University's initial questioning, Nirenberg provided extensive descriptions of the academic requirements mandated by the University’s graduate and professional schools, with a focus on graduate students within the Social Sciences Division (SSD).

In order to receive a Ph.D., all graduate students who receive funding from the Graduate Aid Initiative (GAI) are required to achieve a designated amount of “points,” which are earned through teaching experiences. GAI funding covers tuition for five years, with its yearly renewal contingent on satisfactory academic performance.

Between departments, the amount of points that fulfill degree requirements varies. Nirenberg stressed that the teaching graduate students do is integral for their graduate education, as a means of acquiring “practical pedagogical experience.” 

The differences between Ph.D. students and master’s students was also discussed during Nirenberg’s testimony, particularly regarding the impact of financial aid on the degree requirements for Ph.D. and master’s students. GSU's petition called for the inclusion of many of the university's master students in the union. The University's filing with the NLRB suggested that masters students are different enough from PhD students that they should not be included. According to Nirenberg, the SSD admits all Ph.D. students with a GAI stipend, whereas master’s students typically pay full tuition within the SSD. In order to not overwork master’s students who could be in the midst of becoming Ph.D. students and who are paying full tuition, they do not have teaching requirements, he said.

The GAI stipend is primarily intended to fund graduate research for Ph.D. students’ dissertations, Nirenberg argued. Although teaching experience is strongly encouraged, he said, research is the predominant aim for the University’s graduate students. The University argued in its filing that graduate students should not be considered workers under the National Labor Relations Act, which would preempt unionization.

Under the University’s questioning, Wild provided similar descriptions of the Humanities Division and the academic requirements for undergraduates within the College.

However, Wild was unable to be cross-examined after the University’s initial questioning due to time constraints. The hearing closed at 5 p.m. as both parties agreed to an early adjournment with argumentation continuing Monday morning.

Further hearings are expected to continue throughout the week. The final ruling will determine if GSU’s election will be held and if so, the logistics of the future vote.

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