A Georgetown University graduate-students union has reached its first tentative collective bargaining contract with the school, a milestone that comes after both sides agreed to avert a federal labor board that is looking to strip student employees’ of their union rights.
The contract between the university and the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees, which is pending ratification by union members, includes pay raises and additional protections for victims of sexual harassment or discrimination, according to representatives with GAGE and the American Federation of Teachers, its parent union.
The successful collective-bargaining process illustrates how workers and employers can circumvent the federal government’s involvement in union elections.
The National Labor Relations Board, which oversees private-sector union elections, is working on a new regulation that would strip student workers on college campuses of their labor rights, including the right to unionize. GAGE’s student organizers convinced the university to conduct the election through arbitration in 2018, sidestepping the NLRB to avoid having the Republican-majority board weigh in.
“We’re excited the university has continued to demonstrate its willingness to negotiate in good faith,” Daniel Solomon, a GAGE member and doctoral student, told Bloomberg Law on Friday. “The agreement we’re now signing will represent a significant improvement to both the material lives of graduate workers and their ability to protect themselves from discrimination and harassment in the workplace.”
The contract includes stipend increases for all graduate student workers, including a 14.5% raise for doctoral assistants and raise hourly pay for masters assistants from $13.50 an hour to $19.50 an hour, an AFT spokesperson told Bloomberg Law in an e-mail Friday. It also establishes processes beyond those required by law to report sexual harassment or discrimination, and includes language to protect undocumented graduate employees from prosecution on the basis of their immigration status.
“We are pleased to have reached this tentative agreement with GAGE/AFT and look forward to the result of their ratification process,” a Georgetown spokesperson told Bloomberg law on Friday. “We are grateful for the leadership and collaboration shown by both parties in order to reach an agreement in these challenging times.”
Bypassing the NLRB
The collectively bargained agreement could prompt other student-workers or categories of employees to pursue a similar strategy. Higher-education administrators and students at New York University, the University of Connecticut, and Brown University have followed a similar private-sector process for unionization.
The GAGE agreement would mark the fifth union contract entered into by a major private university since the Obama-era NLRB established a 2016 precedent allowing student-worker unionizing, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, City University of New York.
The NLRB announced in September 2019 that it would use formal rulemaking to undo the Obama-era precedent and bar student workers from unionizing. The board hasn’t proceeded to the next step in that process since its announcement.
“If the NLRB adopts a final rule to classify student assistants as not employees under the National Labor Relations Act, it would mean that voluntary recognition would be the sole vehicle for similar negotiations to take place at other private” colleges and universities, said William Herbert, director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education.