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Credit: Julia Schorr , Autumn Powell

Brown University broke rank with other Ivy League and private universities last month by allowing graduate students to organize an election to vote on forming a union.

After a year of graduate student campaigning, Brown’s Provost Richard M. Locke signed an agreement with pro-union group Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees on June 21 that will allow the organization to hold an election where Brown students can vote on whether they want to unionize.

Brown's support for a potential graduate student union is markedly different from the attitudes of most other university administrations, which are on the whole opposed to unionization — at Penn, for example, the administration has opposed graduate student unionization campaigns for the past two decades. 

The Brown agreement means that if a majority of eligible students — any teaching assistant, research assistant, or proctor enrolled in a PhD or Masters program — vote in favor of a union, the University will “immediately” recognize the union and notify the National Labor Relations Board so that it can certify SUGSE as the sole bargaining unit representing Brown graduate students.

If this happens, SUGSE will be able to negotiate on behalf of Brown graduate students for benefits like childcare support, mental health support, effective grievance procedures, and paid sick leave — the kind of benefits that teaching and research assistants would be eligible for as legal employees of the University, but not as students. 

The Brown administration's voluntary cooperation with SUGSE has piqued the interest of members of Penn’s pro-union group Graduate Employees Together - University of Pennsylvania (GET-UP), which has campaigned for graduate student unionization for years.

Biology PhD student and GET-UP organizer Olivia Harding said in an email to The DP that GET-UP members are “extremely excited” by the election agreement at Brown. Harding cited fair work compensation, improved mental health resources, and clearer grievance procedures as common issues around which union organizers at Penn and Brown have mobilized. 

Less than a week after the Brown announcement, however, on June 26, the Supreme Court ruled that public-sector workers who choose not to join labor unions are not obligated to pay union fees, a decision that some fear will weaken the effectiveness of unions. GET-UP said in a statement on Twitter that the Supreme Court decision was “a blow to our movement.”

“[We] won’t back down,” the statement continued. “We will continue to fight for better working conditions here [at Penn] and for all workers.”

Harding said in a second email that the Supreme Court ruling has triggered “a surge of reaffirmation and support for unions, especially from our peers in public universities and education.”

At Penn, everything from graduate students’ living stipends to gym access is decided solely by administrators. GET-UP members want a say in these decisions. The push for more effective sexual harassment reporting policies has also been a primary concern for GET-UP, and the group sees unionization as the solution to these problems.

Brown is not the first private university where the administration voluntarily agreed to let a unionization election take place. New York University graduate students successfully bargained with NYU administration for a union contract in 2015, in what union hopefuls at private universities across the country uphold as a “historic” move.

Most recently, Harvard University announced it would bargain with graduate students there after a majority voted to unionize at the end of April. Harvard’s decision to cooperate with its graduate student union rather than contest or ignore the election results separates it from fellow Ivy League universities Yale and Columbia, where, like Penn, administrators have turned to legal recourse to delay and prevent unionization.

In its decision to cooperate with SUGSE, the Brown administration joins the likes of Harvard, NYU, and the New School in choosing to negotiate with their graduate student unions rather than oppose them or defer to the NLRB.

“They do not want bad PR, but also some in university administration might well feel uneasy about reliance upon the Trump NLRB to do their dirty work,” Nelson Lichtenstein, director of University of California at Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy, said in an email.

Lichtenstein added that schools like Yale and Columbia, on the other hand, have so far “fully resisted unionization” –as has Penn.

The Penn administration has aggressively countered GET-UP’s campaign since since the group kicked off unionizing efforts in 2016, eventually forcing GET-UP to tactically withdraw its petition to unionize. Penn fought equally hard to thwart unionization efforts in the early 2000s by a previous iteration of GET-UP. 

“It’s disappointing that in a time of courageous resistance to inhumanity and grassroots movements demanding human rights and inhumanity, Penn continues to be on the wrong side of these politics: complicit with the Trump administration,” Harding said. “There is nothing stopping Penn from working with GET-UP to set up an election agreement independent of the Trump NLRB.” 

Vice President for University Communications Stephen MacCarthy did not respond to a request for comment.

Political science PhD student Katie Rader, another GET-UP member, said the Brown election announcement was “really good news” for graduate students across the country who want to unionize because it will bring attention to students’ demands, and place pressure on universities to listen to them. 

“It’s promising and heartening that universities are choosing to recognize their students and not just hide behind the Trump administration’s hostile labor board,” Rader said. “But I wouldn’t say I’m holding my breath for Penn to do the same."