Laney Organizers Opt to Form Voluntary Membership Union

Laney Graduate School (LGS) students originally seeking to form a graduate student union have withdrawn plans to form a full labor union, now planning to form a “voluntary membership union.”

The Emory Graduate Organizing Committee has stopped petitioning for signatures on authorization cards. The committee is working with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to develop a strategy moving forward and set up the voluntary membership union, which will collect membership dues.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) may overturn a 2016 ruling that considered graduate students at private universities who work as teaching and research assistants employees, according to the Washington Post. Graduate students would lose the right to unionize if the ruling is overturned. President Donald J. Trump has appointed two of the five NLRB positions, shifting majority power to Republicans.

The Board has switched positions on the issue in the past, often along party lines. Under former President Bill Clinton, graduate students had the right to unionize; under former President George W. Bush, graduate students lost the right to unionize; and under former President Barack Obama, the NLRB reversed the ruling once again.

“Rather than pushing forward with an effort that we know isn’t going to lead to us having a union we’re transitioning right now to a structure that would be a voluntary membership,” LGS student Jonathan Basile said. “We would do issues-based advocacy on campus.”

One of the issues the Emory Graduate Organizing Committee, which was created in 2016, hopes to remedy is that graduate students do not receive their first stipends of the academic year until September. That makes it difficult for students to pay rent and other fees for the first 1.5 months of the year, according to Basile.

“[The voluntary membership union doesn’t] have that legal backing to require the University to negotiate,” Basile said.

Sarah Trebat-Leder, another LGS student leading unionization efforts, agreed that the voluntary group will not have as much leverage in negotiating with the University.

“You’re not representative of all the students because you didn’t win an election, only the students who choose to join you,” Trebat-Leder said.

The dues amount, handling votes and leadership are “still under discussion.” The group hopes to start collecting dues by Fall 2018, Trebat-Leder said.

The group is modeling itself after Duke University’s voluntary membership union, which is not formally recognized by the NLRB, according to Basile.

LGS students started receiving dental coverage and dependent coverage this academic year as a part of their benefits. The Emory/Aetna insurance plan, which now includes the dental and dependent coverage benefits, is offered to non-LGS students Emory students for a fee but is provided free of charge to LGS students who receive stipends.

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