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Trump the Union Buster

For graduate students fighting to unionize, time is running out.

Illustration by Martin Elfman

For graduate students at some of the country’s most elite universities, the school year began with hope. Last August, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that grad students who teach classes, conduct research, and perform other paid work for their schools must be classified as employees—and are therefore allowed to form unions. The decision electrified union organizing campaigns on at least 15 campuses, as Ph.D. candidates from Columbia and Yale to Duke and Penn fought for the right to negotiate for better pay and working conditions.

But the optimism on college campuses came to an abrupt halt on November 8. With Donald Trump in the White House, both unions and universities expect the NLRB’s decision to be reversed. As a result, both sides are now locked in a heated race—with grad students scrambling to hold union votes as quickly as possible, and universities doing all they can to run out the clock.

“This is now very urgent for us,” says Ozan Kiratli, a biology student at the University of Pennsylvania. “We’ve increased our efforts to organize in a way that it can be done quicker. We’re confident we’ll win—Trump’s election just intensified the struggle.”

For grad students, the timeline for unionization has suddenly plummeted from years to mere months. Democrats currently hold a 2–1 majority on the NLRB, but Trump has two vacant seats to fill on the labor board, thanks to the GOP’s success at repeatedly blocking President Barack Obama’s nominees. Trump has reportedly homed in on a short list of conservative labor lawyers to fill the two seats and tilt the board sharply to the right. The front-runners include Marvin Kaplan, a former Republican congressional staffer, and William Emanuel, an attorney at the law firm Littler Mendelson, which has worked on behalf of universities trying to block graduate students from unionizing.

Nationwide, only 2 percent of graduate students are currently unionized. But in recent years, grad students have watched tuition rise and tenure-track positions disappear, along with the generous pay and benefits they might someday earn as full professors. Today, grad students earn about $20,000 a year, with some teaching as many as three courses per semester, all while working on their own research. And Trump wants to cut federal funding for both university research and student aid—two primary sources of support for grad students. Stipends for teaching assistants could disappear overnight, and entire departments studying politically charged topics such as climate change could be shuttered. “The issues have shifted since the election,” says Elaine Lafay, a student organizer at Penn. “There are certain groups who are now way more vulnerable, like international students and those who rely on funding from the government.”

The impending takeover at the NLRB has forced students to kick their organizing campaigns into overdrive—and so far, the results have been disastrous. At Yale, grad students held a unionization vote in February. The original plan was to organize every department at the university methodically—a process that could take years. Instead, the union decided to speed up the campaign by allowing each department to vote separately. In the end, only nine departments wound up casting ballots—and only eight voted to unionize.

Even those meager gains are encouraging compared to the outcome at Duke, where a campus-wide unionization vote in February failed badly, with 691 students voting against the union and 398 voting in favor. Duke played hardball during the campaign. It accused union organizers of intimidating international students—telling them that they could lose their visas if they didn’t vote in favor of unionization—and it challenged the eligibility of hundreds of students to participate in the vote. The high-powered law firm Duke employed, Proskauer Rose, has also worked with Columbia and Yale on their own anti-union campaigns. “Given the outcome of the presidential election, we were hoping we’d be able to get it over in the time we had,” says Jess Issacharoff, a fifth-year Ph.D. student. “But given the amount of money the university was spending on union-busting law firms and the tactics they chose, we just fell short.”

If Trump’s election put students under the gun, it has enabled universities to resort to a single tactic: stall until the president stacks the NLRB with anti-union lawyers. In a letter to graduate students in February, Vanderbilt University made clear that it expects the labor board to revert to the good old days and once again bar students from organizing. “The NLRB and/or the federal courts should, and are likely to, overrule this recent decision and return to the prior precedent that has served higher education well for decades,” the university said.

At Yale, university officials have challenged the February vote on the grounds that it included fewer than 10 percent of all grad students—a reality that was forced on union organizers by the need to rush the vote. In April, Yale students began a hunger strike in an effort to force the school to the bargaining table. (In response, campus Republicans held a barbecue next door.) “The Yale administration is facing a decision,” says Aaron Greenberg, a political science grad student who helped lead the union drive. “Are they going to sit down and negotiate and collaborate with members of the Yale community, who want to improve their lives through collective bargaining? Or are they going to side with Trump and his administration?”

Perhaps no university has leaned more heavily on stalling tactics than Columbia, which has been at the center of the unionization fight from the start. It was Columbia students who originally petitioned the NLRB to recognize grad students as school employees. And support for unionization is higher at Columbia than at almost any other school: In December, students voted almost 3–1 in favor of forming a union. Now, however, the university is challenging the results, accusing union organizers of filming prospective voters and pressuring students at the ballot box. An NLRB official overruled the university’s objections in March, but Columbia appealed to the national board, which has yet to issue a ruling.

The delay means that grad students at Columbia will be forced to vote all over again in the fall, because the bargaining unit turns over with the change of semester. And if Trump is able to stack the labor board before then, students may not even get that chance. “Delay, in general, helps employers,” says Jeffrey Hirsch, a law professor at the University of North Carolina. “It lets enthusiasm wane—and that’s especially true with many students, who turn over every year.”