EmoryUnite! organizers expect to find out soon if Emory University graduate students and workers can unionize after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Thursday tallies the ballots from their mid-October union election. The NLRB will announce the results of the election on Nov. 28.

If EmoryUnite! prevails, it would make Emory only the second private university in the South with unionized graduate students. Duke University graduate workers overwhelmingly won their union election on Aug. 22 with an 88% pro-union vote.

While graduate students at private universities have won a string of union victories in the last few years–winning 24 out of their last 25 union elections–it’s taken them a lot longer to unionize than their peers at public universities.

That’s because their unionization efforts are governed by the NLRB, which historically hasn’t considered graduate students to be university employees. It wasn’t until 2021 that the NLRB finally decided graduate students at private universities can unionize, after years of going back and forth.

By contrast, public university unions are governed by state laws, which treat graduate students as university employees. Graduate students at the University of Georgia, Georgia State University and other state universities can join the United Campus Workers of Georgia (UCWGA), which represents all public college and university staff statewide.

Collective bargaining rights

If the Emory graduate workers unionize though, they’ll effectively have more power than their counterparts at Georgia’s public universities. That’s because they’ll gain the right to collectively bargain with their employer, Emory.

EmoryUnite! has stated that its members want a living wage, fair compensation for the many jobs they do on campus, better working conditions, and affordable healthcare. If EmoryUnite! wins the election and joins parent union Workers United-SEIU, Emory’s administration would be required by law to recognize it as the collective bargaining unit for the university’s 1,722 graduate workers.

That said, EmoryUnite! would still have to negotiate with Emory to hammer out a contract. That could take a year or more – and it’s not a foregone conclusion, as shown by the struggles of unionized Starbucks workers, who’re still stuck in limbo between an official union and meaningful contract negotiations with Starbucks.

Private university union struggles

The Emory Unite! union election is a culmination of years of organizing. It’s hard for graduate student union drives to gain traction, since graduate student turnover is high: Most are campus employees for only three to five years. That’s why it’s taken graduate workers at private universities a while to unionize, amid the NLRB’s fluctuating rule changes.

The NLRB only granted graduate students at private universities the right to unionize in 2021 after a decades-long fight. In 1970 the NLRB ruled that graduate teaching assistants and other student workers at private universities could not be considered employees, since their work fell under learning purposes.

The fight to unionize persisted until 2000, when the NLRB finally granted collective bargaining rights to graduate students at New York University. That could have been a sea change for graduate workers at private universities across the country – but the NLRB reversed its decision four years later.

In 2016, the NLRB again ruled in favor of collective bargaining rights for graduate workers at private universities – but then in 2019 the board’s Republican majority issued a proposed rule to bar them from unionizing. It wasn’t until 2021 that the NLRB withdrew that rule, clearing the way for union drives.

The graduate worker union movement gained momentum during the pandemic. Graduate workers at private universities such as Brown, Georgetown, Harvard, Northwestern, and Yale have since won union victories.

Public university bargaining rights?

While graduate workers at Georgia’s public universities can join the UCWGA, their union can’t bargain over pay, benefits, and working conditions with university employers the way private school unions can, because public-sector unions don’t have collective bargaining rights in Georgia.

That gives them a lot less leverage. Collective bargaining is the central power of unions because it’s how they band together to make demands and negotiate contracts as a unit.  
Labor rights advocates and progressive lawmakers have been fighting for public-sector collective bargaining rights for years in Georgia. In the past legislative session, UCWGA members lobbied lawmakers to pass SB 166, a bill that would have granted public sector bargaining rights to almost 700,000 state employees, But the bill never made it to a vote.

This story has been updated to reflect that the NLRB has extended the vote count for the EmoryUnite! union election to Nov. 28.

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