- - Tuesday, August 30, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The National Labor Relations Board has never met a union it didn’t like and now that it has a majority of very liberal Democrats, it’s eager to assist in the creation of unions that go where no union organizer has gone before.

The board, by a vote of 3 to 1, has decided that there is no clear language in the National Labor Relations Act that forbids teaching assistants, usually graduate students, from being classified as employees of the university. “They perform work at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated,” and therefore have the right to organize unions. Graduate students of the world, organize.

The NLRB has overall jurisdiction over union-organizing elections and referees private-sector workplace disputes. About a million graduate students at public universities have been unionized for decades, generally covered by state law, not federal law. The new ruling was a response to a petition by the United Auto Workers Union’s free-swinging District 50, which has gone far beyond the bounds of its motorcar origins to expand unionization.

The new ruling reverses a decision from 2004, and enables graduate students at Columbia University to form a union. This was opposed by, among others, Harvard University and Stanford University. The ruling could cost colleges and universities millions, and parents of America can be sure they will pay the freight.

The universities say collective bargaining in graduate programs could disrupt their ability to choose who teaches specific classes. The ruling rejects previous board decisions which determined that teaching assistants were either students or employees. The board now says they can be both.

Students deserve such protection when “they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated,” the board said. Philip A. Miscimarra, the board’s lone dissenter, argued that his colleagues disregarded the consequences of the enormous expense of a college education. “Congress never intended that the [National Labor Relations Act] and collective bargaining would be the means by which students and their families might attempt to exercise control over such an extraordinary expense,” he said.

Prolonged confirmation struggles over nominees to the board have slowed the board’s business, and other schools are expected to join Harvard and Stanford to challenge the decision in court, which will slow it further. The courts will no doubt work it out, but this dispute is about more than a fight over who gets to join a union. The decision encourages “corporatism,” the pursuit of conflicting economic and political interests through a corporate entity. Corporations — trade unions on the left, industrial associations on the right — more and more negotiate intricate personal relations than in an earlier, more reflective time.

Nowhere in the scheme of life is the relationship between the individuals more important than that between teacher and student. To substitute for that relationship a corporation is a mortal danger to the mysterious process of teaching, learning and education. Graduate students have a good case that they are underpaid and abused by the overpaid administrators who threaten to put a college education — a real education — out of reach for middle-class parents and their children. If an industrial union is the only answer we can find to ameliorate this economic injustice, it’s a cause of considerable sadness.

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