NEW YORK – Several private universities are boosting stipends and benefits ahead of a federal ruling that could clear the way for graduate students to form unions. To some grad students, it’s an attempt to persuade them that they don’t need collective bargaining to get a raise.
Union backers say pay hikes are nice but what they want most is more control over their work as teaching and research assistants.
“The message isn’t that graduate students need more money,” said Ben Cohen, who studies biomedical engineering at Cornell University, which recently raised stipends by 2 percent and increased child care subsidies for graduate students.
“The message is that graduate students deserve to have a voice in their representation,” he said.
Thousands of graduate students at public universities are already unionized, but New York University is the only private university in the U.S. where graduate students now have union representation.
That could change in the months ahead. The NLRB, which ruled in 2000 that grad students had a right to collective bargaining only to reverse itself in 2004, has been revisiting the issue yet again in cases involving Columbia University and the New School, both in New York City.
Both pro- and anti-union forces say they expect the current board, appointed by President Barack Obama, to again declare that grad students have a right to organize. A ruling is expected before Obama leaves office.
Last month, Columbia announced it would raise the standard nine-month graduate stipend of $26,286 by 17 percent over the next four years. That came after the university acted last May to increase child-care subsidies and paid parental leave.
Among other universities that have increased pay and benefits for graduate students, the University of Chicago announced a $2,000 graduate student stipend increase over two years last December. Brown University raised stipends and added money for dental coverage and travel to conferences.
Brian Carlson, a Massachusetts-based law lawyer who represents educational institutions, said the increases in pay and benefits are likely intended to dissuade graduate students from unionizing.
“When graduate students are happy they are less likely to be receptive to calls to organize,” Carlson said.
University administrators argue that graduate students are not employees, even though they help teach and conduct research.
The other seven Ivy League institutions plus Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a brief with the NLRB on Feb. 29 supporting Columbia against the union effort. They warned that allowing graduate students to unionize would represent “an inappropriate intrusion into long protected areas of academic freedom and autonomy.”