The National Labor Relations Board declared this week that student assistants at private universities are employees and have the right to unionize. The decision overturned a 2004 precedent. It will allow thousands of teaching and research assistants to use collective bargaining to demand better pay and working conditions.
For graduate students in the mental health professions, this is significant. More than half of university psychology programs in the US are now housed in private universities. At the graduate level, those completing PsyD programs (which are more likely to be in private universities) average $200,000 in debt. This compares with about $75,000 in median debt for those graduating from PhD programs. (The correlation between degree type and university type isn’t perfect. Some PsyD programs are in public universities and some PhD programs are in private universities. But because they are smaller and often rely on research grants, PhD programs tend to be in public institutions.)
Allowing teaching and research assistants in private universities to collectively bargain for better pay could alleviate some of that burden. Of course, money for additional pay has to come from somewhere. Paying student assistants more could mean that tuition for all students would need to increase to cover that cost. This is particularly likely at private universities with little to no endowment, which depend on tuition dollars to remain solvent.
On the other hand, public university student assistants have been covered by the National Labor Relations Act for years. And their ability to unionize has not been problematic. In fact, this was one of the reasons the NLRB cited for this week’s ruling.
The National Law Review has an interesting rundown of the broader implications of the decision. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a strong supporter of unionization. Even though I don’t think a therapists’ union will solve the problems of independent practitioners, I do think that those employed by larger employers should unionize whenever possible. The benefits are well-documented. If you’re a teaching or research assistant at a private university, and you would like to take advantage of this week’s decision, here’s a good place to start. There’s also a surprisingly good and detailed Wikipedia page on grad student unionization that offers additional history.