Colleges and universities have been home to their fair share of union activity of late.
The stage is set for another chapter in the lengthy battle over college athlete unionization. Faculty members at the University of Pittsburgh last month voted in a landslide to unionize after years of efforts. Within the last few weeks, graduate students at Harvard University and undergraduate and graduate teaching and research assistants at Columbia University went on strike.
But a notable new dimension in labor relations opened up last month when student admissions workers at Hamilton College in upstate New York voted to unionize. That vote is believed to be the first of its kind since the National Labor Relations Board rolled back a Trump administration rule proposed to take away college students' collective bargaining rights. It's also thought to be the first time student admissions workers have unionized.
Since then, Hamilton has received two more petitions from the union that organized its admissions workers, the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union. It's seeking to represent additional groups of student employees, the college said Nov. 10.
Against that backdrop, college leaders might be thinking about their approach to the changing labor environment. Higher Ed Dive spoke about that process with Christopher Moran, a partner in the labor and employment group at law firm Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders. Moran regularly represents colleges and universities.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
HIGHER ED DIVE: Are different laws and issues involved when undergraduates organize instead of other employee groups?
CHRISTOPHER MORAN: A lot of the issues are the same or similar.
In the graduate situations — the graduate assistant situations — there were a lot of concerns and are a lot of concerns about the impact on teaching, and would they seek to bargain over terms and conditions that affect what goes on in the classroom and how things are taught and what people perhaps even receive as grades. Those are less implicated in the undergraduate student situation.
There are still some common ones that are very important, including the primary relationship with the person being that as a student as opposed to being that as an employee. And what happens if someone gets expelled? Can you fire them if they're expelled? How does that kind of a thing play out?
Is that something that would be bargained and written into a contract?
It would depend on how the contract is framed. If it's defined as students at a particular institution, then presumably when you stop being a student, you would no longer be covered under the collective bargaining agreement. I do expect that not everyone would agree with that approach, and if these situations proliferate, that you would see some effort to put in limitations on an institution's right to part company with a student worker who is no longer a student.
These are undergraduates, and they're only going to be on campus for a few years. Does that have any effect on the outlook for finalizing a contract?
It will certainly have some impact on it, and first contracts are notoriously difficult to negotiate. The parties are obliged to meet at regular intervals and confer in good faith, but they're not forced to agree on any particular terms. Those negotiations for a first contract can go on for years.
That being said, a rough analogy might be some professional sports, where many of the athletes are turning over with some regularity and might not be around for all that many years.
In a college or university setting, I would expect that the students would put together a student bargaining committee, and it might take some period of time to get an agreement — it could easily take years or more than one year — but I would think they would. There would be enough continuity that it would be doable.
It might be too soon to tell whether what's happening at Hamilton catches on elsewhere, but can college leaders do anything to prepare themselves for facing this type of situation?
I think there are sort of two parts to that answer. One is if you're seeking to avoid it happening.
This is the time to make sure that your student workers know that you appreciate them and that they feel fairly treated. Because the genesis of many of these campaigns, if not the vast majority, is somebody feels that they were slighted in some way.
So to the extent we can make the student workers understand that they are valued and appreciated and we can ensure that they're treated fairly, that is a great first step.
In terms of if it does happen — preparing for it — I think institutions are going to have to make a decision on what is their response going to be. I suspect some institutions may be neutral. They may say that they'll respect the right of the students to do it if the students want to do it, and they're not going to take a position.
Some are going to take a sort of low-key view, a low-key approach to say we don't think this is a great idea, but we leave it up to the students. And then I suspect some are going to be more vocal about why they think it's a bad idea, and a little more strident about how they think this is counterproductive and, therefore, as an institution, they think it's a bad idea.
So I think now would be a good time to think that through, what the institution's position is going to be if it happens. Because that's going to be central to the approach. If a union campaign starts, the election can take place very quickly.
Are there questions of organizational values to consider in addition to the legal ones?
There absolutely are. If you were to come out in opposition, how is that perceived on campus, both by the students and the faculty?
And what about external constituencies, the world outside the school in press coverage and things of that nature?
Is the framework different here for public colleges versus private nonprofit institutions?
The framework is different because the National Labor Relations Act isn't going to reach the public colleges. It's going to be a question of state law and state labor relations and interpretations of those laws.
This might be seen by certain states as instrumental in how they should interpret their own laws, but it's not determinative.
Will anything else vary state to state?
Not so much, because the NLRA is a federal law. To the extent that it applies, there should be, one would hope, uniformity in that regard.
The oddest thing about the NLRB and this issue is that they have changed course so frequently. Depending on how the next presidential election goes, we could find another proposal like was introduced in 2019 to say that the board doesn't have jurisdiction over students.