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Universities boost stipends ahead of ruling on graduate student unions

| Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016, 7:45 p.m.

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 convince 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 unionized, but New York University is the only private university in the United States where graduate students have union representation.

That could change in the months ahead. The National Labor Relations Board, 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 board, appointed by President Obama, to declare again 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 in May increased 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 in 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,” he 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.”

Unionization of grad students, they warned, also has the potential “to transform the collaborative model of graduate education to one of conflict and tension.”

Labor organizers at Columbia, where grad students have been considering an affiliation with the United Auto Workers union, have both celebrated the recent boost in pay and benefits, and characterized them as an attempt at appeasement.

Olga Brudastova, a Columbia graduate student in civil engineering, called the four-year raise package “a classic tactic for an anti-union campaign, so that at the end of the day they are able to say, ‘Oh, we are doing everything for you, even for the future, not just for now.' ” A Columbia spokesman declined to comment.

Ian Bradley-Perrin, who is studying for a Ph.D. in the history of public health at Columbia, said that in addition to increasing pay and benefits, university officials began last spring to invite small groups of graduate students to lunch meetings where a negative view of unions was presented.

“At one point the dean said there was no successful student union in the country,” Bradley-Perrin said.

The United Auto Workers is also seeking to represent graduate students at Harvard University, where President Drew Faust has spoken out against the union drive.

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