2016-2017: Authorization Card Drive
-Drive for NLRB recognition stymied by Trump's election and Emory's hiring of a union-busting law firm
-Our organizing efforts still win reduced teaching obligations for math students
-And help grad workers to regain dental and dependent health coverage
In August of 2016, The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recognized graduate student teaching and research assistants at private universities as employees. Graduate students at Emory who had, for a long time, been frustrated by low pay, a lack of benefits, and a lack of representation in the work place, seized on the opportunity to begin organizing a union.
The movement spread quickly by word of mouth, and we began working with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to take the first official step toward recognition. We gathered signatures from fellow Laney grad workers on authorization cards that indicated their desire for a union. In little over a semester, we had 400 signatures out of Laney's 1500 students.
Unfortunately, two unexpected events intervened to prevent us from continuing to work toward official NLRB recognition. First, Trump won the election in November - all of us were affected by this in many ways, one of which was that it almost guaranteed that we would lose our right to organize. Trump appointed several union-busting attorneys to the NLRB with the objective of overturning the pro-labor decisions of the Obama era.
There was no reason why this should put an end to our organizing campaign in itself - an employer can recognize the democratic will of their employees to organize even without the sanction of the NLRB (NYU recognized its graduate student union in 2013). Unfortunately, Emory's administration took the opposite course. They hired union-busting law firm Proskauer Rose to prevent us from gaining recognition as a union. Proskauer charges upwards of $1400/hour and has effectively prevented unionization campaigns at schools across the country (including Yale, Columbia, and Duke) by creating legal barriers and spreading misinformation among workers. By hiring Proskauer Rose, Emory's administration was demonstrating that they would rather use their immense resources to fight against their teachers and researchers gaining a voice in their workplace, rather than using that money to improve our working conditions. This also has the unfortunate effect of contributing to the Republican party's continued erosion of the power of labor in this country, furthering the goals of the GOP and the Trump administration.
After a semester of successful momentum building, we faced an agonizing decision. Ultimately, the organizing committee decided that seeking recognition through the NLRB was no longer a viable path, and we abandoned our authorization card drive to focus on issues-based advocacy on campus.
The efforts that semester still led to significant improvements in the lives of Laney's graduate workers. As a direct result of our organizing, graduate workers in the Math department won significantly reduced teaching obligations. Two years before we began organizing, they realized that they were being forced to teach far more than any other Laney students (10 semesters), and despite that were being paid less. This violated the recommendations of the Laney handbook, but the handbook is not a binding contract (one of the reasons we need a union is to get a contract, which would prevent our employer from making unilateral changes without warning). They organized through GSC for a year to petition Laney's administration for changes. Their teaching obligations were reduced from 10 semesters to 8 (the handbook recommends 4), and they were increased to 12-semester pay, the handbook minimum. Beyond that the administration offered only empty promises.
The president of their GSC group began to work with us when we started organizing. When she presented the concerns of math grads to the administration as part of the union, their response was markedly different. The argument the administration repeatedly invoked to justify their union-busting stance was that our stipends were not related in any way to the work we did for the university. While this is ridiculous across the board, the math students were particularly aggrieved because they still had to demonstrate every semester that they were either teaching or receiving an external fellowship to keep their stipend. When this was pointed out to the administration by union members, they quickly hired several new lecturers in the department, and reduced the students' teaching obligations to within the handbook requirements.
Additionally, improvements were made to graduate worker health benefits at the end of this year. GSC had asked for years for improvements - at the time we had no dental, vision, or dependent coverage. (Multiple students with families had to withdraw from their programs when dependent coverage was taken away from them without warning a few years prior). While multiple student groups participated in the advocacy that led to our regaining dental and dependent coverage, we know from people who participated in the administration's discussions that the unionization campaign was a motivating factor in their decision.
Our long-term goal is still to have an officially recognized majority union. The obligation this would place on Emory's administration to negotiate a binding contract with us would give us greater bargaining power to improve our pay, benefits, and working conditions. Unfortunately, this will only be possible if Emory decides to stop union-busting, or if there is a Democratically appointed, pro-labor NLRB. We will likely be unable to push for another union vote until at least 2020, but in the meantime we will be improving Laney through issues-based advocacy and building momentum and infrastructure for the next opportunity.