University, grad students finalize pre-election agreement for unionization

On June 21, Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees and the University finalized an agreement outlining the terms for holding an election on graduate student unionization after nearly a year of negotiations.

The pre-election agreement paves the way for the University’s voluntary recognition of a union if graduate students vote in favor of one in an election overseen by the American Arbitration Association. Other universities, such as Georgetown University and Cornell, have also chosen the AAA to oversee their elections. The Brown agreement also stipulates “formal election procedures, voter eligibility guidelines and a dispute resolution mechanism,” according to a joint statement by SUGSE and the University.

Babak Hemmatian GS, a negotiator for SUGSE, said the organization would have preferred “stronger assurances” that the University would respect the outcome of the election, but felt satisfied that the election would be free from interference from the anti-union National Labor Relations Board. “The agreement is the best that could be achieved,” he said.

Provost Richard Locke P’18 said the University was happy that the agreement would “permit what we’ve always wanted, which was to have an open and fair fact-based discussion among grad students in the community on whether or not unionization is in their self-interest.”

Discussions with the University administration and the Let Us Vote Rally in April, among other SUGSE activities, led up to the agreement, though there were delays in receiving some drafts, Hemmatian said.

Locke added that there were never any major difficulties in negotiating the agreement. “We were in convergence probably over 90 percent of the time,” he said.

There was a setback in negotiations when the agreement went to the external legal counsels of the University and the American Federation of Teachers, but this was resolved when SUGSE and the University resumed direct negotiations with each other, Locke said.

“This agreement shows, by all the parties, an interest in making sure that the representational form of democracy … is respected,” said William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions. This contrasts with situations at universities such as Columbia, where the administration is not respecting graduate students’ vote to unionize, he added.

Herbert added that the agreement’s sections on unionization forums, the creation of a Union-Management Committee and mediation before arbitration set “the stage for a long-term positive relationship” among all parties.

The agreement also includes master’s students in the bargaining unit — the group of people a union represents. SUGSE previously claimed the University was excluding master’s students, raising the issue during its Let Us Vote Rally.

But Locke said the lack of inclusion of master’s students in the bargaining unit was “a made-up issue,” adding that the rally had no influence on the final agreement. Only one draft from the external legal counsel had excluded master’s students, he said. “The University was always of the position that it was master’s and PhD students who were employed as (research assistants) and (teaching assistants) who would be in the bargaining unit,” he added.

SUGSE and the AFT have until April 15, 2019 to file an election petition. But if the NLRB reverses its 2016 decision stating that graduate students may unionize, the agreement will terminate, according to the pre-election agreement.

Hemmatian said SUGSE would have preferred the election to be unaffected by any future NLRB ruling, but it was one of the conditions set by the administration for reaching an agreement.

Historically, in cases such as New York University, universities have voluntarily recognized unions regardless of the NLRB ruling or law of the land, Herbert said. “The University has a choice to allow for a process regardless of whatever the NLRB does,” he added.

It is unlikely that the NLRB will overrule the 2016 decision between now and this fall, Hemmatian said. “We’re hoping that the election will happen in the fall, barring any unfortunate circumstances,” he added.

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