Friends and Colleagues:
As you have no doubt read in recent weeks, the Vanderbilt University administration has sent letters outlining their stance on graduate student unionization. We have spent the last several weeks crafting a response to the initial, 20 February 2017 letter, which is quite close in content to the latest, 3 March 2017 letter. We hope the information we have provided will help to clarify not only our own hopes and aims, but dispel any myths the administration’s emails may have inspired.
You will find our annotated letter below, as well as in PDF format for ease of reading. More information regarding our next steps are forthcoming as well.
To those of you on spring break, we wish you a relaxing final few days before classes resume. To those of you writing comps, we wish you the best of luck as they wind down. And to all, thank you for your continued support of this singularly important cause.
Ahmed, 2nd year, Department of Philosophy
Sebastian Ramirez, 2nd year, Department of Philosophy
“20 February 2017
“Dear Members of the Graduate Faculty,
“Shortly before we began the current academic year, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate students engaged in teaching or serving as research assistants are “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), meaning they may unionize and collectively bargain with their universities over the terms of their duties. Equally as important, our graduate students have the right not to do so. This decision overruled decades of legal precedent and marked a fundamental shift from the way the NLRB had traditionally viewed the relationship between graduate students and their universities. We write to share the University’s official position on potential graduate student unionization at Vanderbilt.”
The 2016 NLRB decision to grant graduate students at private universities employee-status and, thus, the right to unionize, overturned 12 years of legal precedent. In 2004, the NLRB ruled in a 3-2 decision involving Brown University that graduate student assistants are not employees within the meaning of Section 2(3) of the National Labor Relations Act. Further, this 12-year precedent had not been held without dissenting opinions. In a 2010 decision to reject a petition by NYU graduate students, then acting director of the New York office of the NLRB, Elbert F. Tellem, stated that the 2004 decision was “premised on a university setting as it existed 30 years ago.” Clearly, then, the recent decision is not a radical departure from legal precedent, but a slight, yet important, shift of balance in an ongoing legal debate.
Further, it could be argued that this decision falls in line with decades of legal precedent concerning the employee status of graduate students at public universities. Graduate students at the University of Michigan, for example, have been unionized since 1970. Graduate student unionization is by no means a novel or radical phenomenon.
“Vanderbilt believes in education first. Vanderbilt has always taken the position that our graduate students are students first and foremost. Our students are not at Vanderbilt for the primary purpose of holding jobs or performing services on behalf of the University; rather, they are here for the true purpose of gaining a world-class education, including experiential opportunities for the practice of instruction and research that will prepare them well for their future careers as scholars, professionals, and academics in their own right.”
GWU: While holding jobs and performing services on behalf of the University may not be the “primary purpose” of our being at Vanderbilt, the fact is that the vast majority of graduate students do hold jobs and perform services on behalf of the University. Graduate instructors in the humanities, for example, teach courses that fulfill Vanderbilt University’s “Achieving eXellence in Liberal Education” (AXLE) requirement, which all undergraduate students in the College of Arts and Science must fulfill in order to obtain their degrees. This is a major job and service graduate students perform on behalf of the university. Research assistants perform important work which, indeed, constitutes an important part of graduate education, but which also contributes to the production of the state-of-the-art research that makes Vanderbilt so prestigious. The fact of the matter is that graduate students at Vanderbilt University can be both students and employees. As Elbert Tellem observed in 2010, “The graduates have a dual relationship with the employer which does not necessarily preclude a finding of employee status.” Further, while we recognize the importance of teaching and research assistance as “experiential opportunities,” we also believe this language is misleading, as teaching and research are necessary for Vanderbilt graduates to succeed on the highly-competitive academic job market.
“The University has a strong commitment to supporting our graduate students’ education, including providing financial aid support and healthcare coverage at the University’s cost. Our overarching priority is to provide the highest quality educational experience.”
GWU: Vanderbilt graduate students recognize and appreciate the efforts of the administration to demonstrate its commitment to graduate education. We also recognize, however, that this commitment is contingent on the constitution of the administration. There are no legal guarantees that future administrations will share this commitment to graduate students. A graduate student union would secure the benefits we have reaped under the current administration, ensuring that future administrations could not reduce or overturn them without due process.
“Vanderbilt recognizes that if graduate students choose to be represented by a union, that decision has the potential to drastically change the nature of the relationship between the University and its students – from one of a faculty/student and mentor/mentee relationship, to that of an employer/employee relationship.”
GWU: No evidence is presented to support this claim. Further, this statement obscures an important difference between university faculty and administration. The aim of unionization is to formalize our employer/employee relationship with the university administration. This will allow us to participate in an active bargaining process with the administration so that we are free to focus on our relationships with faculty and mentors. Graduate students are employees of the university administration, not the faculty.
“Such a change is likely to fundamentally alter our current students’ academic experiences, as well as their careers and the careers of those to follow.”
GWU: No evidence is presented to support this claim. On the contrary, a 2000 Tufts University study of ~300 faculty members at five university campuses that have had graduate student collective bargaining for at least four years, found that “[f]aculty do not have a negative attitude toward graduate student collective bargaining… “[F]aculty feel graduate assistants are employees of the university, support the right of graduate students to bargain collectively, and believe collective bargaining is appropriate for graduate students. … [E]ven more important, … based on their experiences, collective bargaining does not inhibit their ability to advise, instruct, or mentor their graduate students.” Overall, the study’s findings “refute claims by university administrators that collective bargaining inhibits the educational relationship between faculty and graduate students.”
In addition, a 2013 study conducted by researchers at the Rutgers University School of Managementfound by using survey data from students that unionization “does not have the presumed negative effect on student outcomes, and in some cases has a positive effect. Union-represented graduate student employees report higher levels of personal and professional support, unionized graduate student employees fare better on pay, and unionized and nonunionized students report similar perceptions of academic freedom. These findings suggest that potential harm to faculty–student relationships and academic freedom should not continue to serve as bases for the denial of collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees.”
“Our goal is to provide factual information and to allow students to make the best decision. Vanderbilt believes that when our students have all of the facts, they will recognize that they are better off without a union, even if a current federal ruling allows such a choice. In these FAQs, and in other communications from the university, we emphasize these points with the common message of “education first.””
GWU: Vanderbilt wishes to allow graduate student workers to make the best decision, and also believes that when we “have all of the facts…[we] will recognize that… [we] are better off without a union.” Vanderbilt’s graduate workers believe that if Vanderbilt is confident in its ability to provide us with “the highest quality educational experience,” it should also be confident in our ability to determine for ourselves whether or not unionization is the right decision.
“Vanderbilt believes that graduate students are best served by remaining union-free for several reasons. First, the nature of unionization clearly interferes and works at cross-purposes with the close mentor-mentee relationships between faculty and graduate students.”
GWU: No evidence is presented to support this claim. Evidence refuting this claim is presented above.
“Since unionization converts the student-teacher relationship to that of supervisor-supervisee the fundamental relationship becomes more formal, structured, and legalistic, rather than personal and flexible.”
GWU: No evidence is presented to support this claim. How would unionization render the student-teacher relationship more formal, structured, and legalistic? The aim of unionization is to transform the graduate worker-administration relationship so as to render it more personal and flexible, rather than impersonal and rigidly hierarchical. This would allow graduate student workers to focus on their student-teacher relationships, both in their capacities as instructors of record and teaching/research assistants, and as mentees and young scholars.
“We believe that such a change will be at odds with the strong academic partnership that is formed between students and mentors and that represents a central element of the graduate student educational experience.”
GWU: No evidence is presented to support this claim. Graduate student workers wish to unionize precisely in order to secure the strongest student-mentor academic partnership possible.
“Second, Vanderbilt prefers to interact directly with its students, rather than to interact through a third party with its own financial and political motives.”
GWU: Our union consists solely of Vanderbilt graduate students. Our union is not a third party. The collective bargaining process will be between Vanderbilt administration and a bargaining committee composed of graduate worker representatives from each department in the bargaining unit. While we at Vanderbilt have not unionized before, we can look to the experiences of those who have in order to understand this issue more clearly. Rebecca Gibson, Lecturer at Tufts University, for example, states: “Though we have benefited from the experience and energy of SEIU’s professional staff at every step, our issues, our preferences, our priorities, our language about our situation, our strategy and our ability to discover all of these, have determined the shape and direction of our efforts to form a union. Far from feeling separated by some third party, we feel much more deeply and more significantly integrated into the university than before. We have gained stature by being together, a union, and we feel it both in our own commitment to the well-being of our students and our teachers, and in our ability to be heard and considered part of our university.”
Further, it is important to note that rather than interact with students directly to find out why we might want to unionize, Vanderbilt University has hired a third party, union-busting law firm with its own financial and political motives.
“Unionization would replace a collaborative, engaged learning model that has enhanced the experience and opportunities for graduate students with a collective bargaining model, a model originally designed for the industrial workplace that focuses on the use of economic levers, such as strikes, to achieve bargaining objectives rather than on a high-quality educational experience.”
GWU: This is a bare assertion without supporting evidence. Strikes are one of many possible bargaining tactics, and one which (A) will only be used as a last resort, and (B) will only be used if we, as graduate student workers, decide for ourselves that it has become necessary through a graduate student body vote. Further, it is not clear why collective bargaining and education must be mutually exclusive. We wish to secure our bargaining objectives in order to ensure the highest quality education, teaching, and research experience possible for the entire Vanderbilt community.
“Instead of one team united toward advancing learning, discovery and degree attainment, the University and its students could end up being on what feels like two opposing teams, divided by a third entity, a union, that neither knows Vanderbilt nor cares about the quality of the educational experience.”
GWU: The union is not a third entity. We are the union. Further, we do not wish to oppose the administration, but to secure conditions under which we are free to actively and intelligently cooperate with the administration on issues that affect our quality of life as graduate student workers and, thus, the quality of the education, teaching, and research that takes place at Vanderbilt. A flourishing graduate student population means a flourishing academic life for the entire Vanderbilt community. As noted above, Vanderbilt’s reliance on a third party, union-busting law firm also raises concerns regarding the administration’s insistence on unity and direct interaction.
“Finally, Vanderbilt has been and remains fully committed to its graduate students, including providing outstanding academic opportunities and financial support to assist with students obtaining their educational goals. In recent years, we have invested millions of dollars in additional funds to increase graduate student stipends. We also provide our doctoral students with excellent health care coverage and many other benefits to enhance the experience while a student at Vanderbilt. As evidenced by recent initiatives, such as the current planning regarding graduate housing and the Dean’s Graduate Readings program, we continue to look for ways to enhance the Vanderbilt graduate student living and learning experience, all of which happened without a union. For a partial list of the graduate student enhancements that have been made in recent years, please see the Fact Sheet regarding graduate education first.”
GWU: We greatly appreciate Vanderbilt’s commitment to graduate students. However, we believe that this commitment should include the commitment to respecting the needs, decisions, and rights of self-determination of the graduate student body. The university’s recognition of our right to unionize would demonstrate the fullest concern for graduate student and, by extension, university life.
“The University believes that the NLRB and/or the federal courts should, and are likely to, overrule this recent decision and return to the prior precedent that has served higher education well for many decades.”
GWU: This is a prediction that bears little, if any, impact on our current legal right to unionize. Further, as noted above, the claim that this prior precedent has served higher education well “for many decades” is misleading. Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that the precedent was, indeed, retained for many decades, the structure of the university system has undergone significant changes over that time period. These changes are reflected in the recent NLRB decision granting graduate students employee status.
“We think it is critical for our faculty and graduate students to be fully informed about any potential graduate student unionization options. To assist you with this process we have prepared a Frequently Asked Questions document.”
GWU: We agree. Further, we think it is critical for the administration to allow our faculty and graduate students the full freedom to exercise our legal right to unionize if we so choose. In order to assist our colleagues with the decision process we have prepared a Frequently Asked Questions document.
Susan R. Wente
Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs
Mark T. Wallace
Dean of the Graduate School”