UO’s historic graduate student union a model for private universities

On Aug. 23, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students who work as teaching or research assistants at private universities must be treated as employees. This status gave thousands of graduate students across the country the new right to unionize, and it’s likely that they’ll look to the University of Oregon’s Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation as a model.

In November 1975, UO made history by signing the GTFF’s first contract despite protest and pushback. The step effectively solidified the GTFF’s status a graduate student union, an impressive feat given that the total number of American graduate student unions at that time was three.

Today, the GTFF serves roughly 1500 members, negotiates everything from pay increases to health insurance and hopes to form a community with other graduate student unions.

“We’re happy about the ruling,” said Jeff Ewing, the GTFF’s Vice President for Member Communications. “We’re very much in support of the organizing efforts of our fellow graduate employees.”

He added that the GTFF looks forward to having unionized allies at other universities and will dispense advice to any prospective student unions.

Not everyone saw the decision in a progressive light. Columbia University, the institution that prompted the case, was quick to express disapproval.  

“We believe that the daily activities and the advisor-advisee relationships involved in the scholarly training of graduate students define an experience that is different from that of the typical workplace,” Provost John Coatsworth wrote in a letter to the Columbia community.

Several Ivy League universities agreed, arguing that unionization could lead to adversarial relationships with administration or impede academic matters, such as class length and exam formats.

Ewing said these arguments were some of the same used when the GTFF was initially formed.

“We’re like a living test case to show that it doesn’t undermine the quality of undergraduate education, nor the education that we receive,” he said.

UO administration and the GTFF don’t always see eye-to-eye during contract negotiations, but they always manage to work out productive solutions, Ewing said. He added that both sides are motivated by a vision of making campus better as a whole; that includes ensuring graduate students have a proper work-life balance.

During this year’s contract negotiations, Graduate School Dean Scott Pratt said that his role “was to ensure that the university keeps in mind that we need to look at ways to accommodate GTFs not only as employees but also as students.”

Regarding the academic harm of unionization, Ewing believes that the opposite effect actually occurs: It benefits students.

“Many of our members take a lot of pride in the instruction that they give to undergraduates and the research they contribute,” he said, adding that being able to organize as a union gives teaching assistants less to stress about.

“When you’re not overworked, you can give more of yourself to [undergraduate] students in a positive way,” he said.

The GTFF did disrupt undergraduate courses once before, when the union went on strike over contract negotiations in December 2014. The eight day conflict climaxed during finals, causing classes to be cancelled and assignments to go ungraded.

Ewing said that was the only legal strike the GTFF has ever enacted: “There was that much of an impasse.”

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Emily Olson

Emily Olson

Emily Olson is an associate news editor at the Emerald. She likes coffee.