Teaching assistants deserve employee status

If the new rule proposed by the National Labor Relations Board passes a final vote, graduate students, who teach the majority of university classes, would lose their status as employees and their right to join a union (“Graduate Students to Lose Unionization Rights Under NLRB Rule,” The Wall Street Journal, Sep. 21).  I understand the argument for this change, but I submit that it is anachronistic.

Yes, graduate students gain invaluable experience as they perform their duties.  But that doesn’t mean they should be exploited.  And they most certainly are.  Tenured professors, who are listed in catalogs as teaching a class, are totally relieved of this duty.  Since universities are permitted to continue to engage in false advertising without a penalty, the least they can do is to treat graduate students as employees, with the right to unionize.

As things stand, graduate students are essentially indentured servants, who are taken advantage of by professors.  They are afraid to complain out of fear that doing so will undermine their future.  So much depends on their getting favorable recommendations from their professors.  Reports of unwanted sexual advances by male professors toward their female graduate assistants show the power imbalance at work.  It’s time to get real about what goes on in higher education.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

2 Replies to “Teaching assistants deserve employee status”

  1. The answer to the are-grad-students-employees question turns on whether you are an NLRB member appointed by a Dem or an NLRB member appointed by a Republican.

    The much more convincing argument is that they are employees. Even if their teaching/research duties are part of their educational experience, they are still doing work that financially benefits the college + the grad students could be represented by a union in bargaining re the employment aspects of their situation but not the educational-experience aspects of their situation.

    As a practical matter, for most professional employees (lawyers, doctors, architects, accountants), the first few months or even first few years involve a large amount of education/training in the profession, even while they are obviously functioning as employees on behalf of the employer. Grad students paid teaching or doing paid research for a university are very analogous to first-year associates at a large law firm.


  2. Labor Lawyer: Universities and colleges most definitely benefit from the work that graduate students do. As a result, they should be treated as employees and allowed to unionize. What is equally disturbing is that course catalogs list professors as teaching courses, and yet it’s the graduate students who do the actual teaching. Truth in advertising apparently doesn’t apply to schools.


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