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Labor

What is collective bargaining and how do we get it?

Political discourse in the United States is replete with propaganda designed to discredit unions and dissuade employees from collective action.

Remember:

A Union is... a group of workers coming together to improve their workplace conditions

A collective bargaining agreement is... a legally-enforceable contract between an employer and a group of employees

Collective bargaining agreements are the simplest, fairest, and most equitable way to organize.

Hon. Alice Madden, 2016 Democratic Nominee for CU Regent-at-Large, 2004-2008 Majority Leader of the Colorado House of Representatives

Graduate employee unionization
at the University of Colorado

A letter from a JD student specializing in labor law

The recent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision in Trustees of Columbia University represents a huge victory for the rights of graduate employees. The Board held that graduate employees are employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and they have the three major labor rights: the right to form a labor organization, the right to collectively bargain, and the right to protest, including the right to strike.

Although the NLRB has determined that employee rights extend to graduate employees, the National Labor Relations Act only covers private employers and employees; thus, it has no jurisdiction over you as graduate employees of the University of Colorado, Boulder. While there is a Colorado statute covering employees, the Colorado Labor Peace Act, it also does not have jurisdiction over University of Colorado because it specifically excludes the “state or any political subdivision thereof.” This means that the University has no present legal obligation under state or federal law to recognize a union or another organization as the sole bargaining representative of its graduate employees.

However the legal situation of CU as a partially (4% state-funded) public enterprise, with an elected governing body in the Regents, does not preclude the right for graduate employees to form a union. You do have the right to form a union and I highly encourage you to consider taking advantage of it. I hope the following overview of the three basic labor rights can give you a sense of what you can achieve with a union and how you go about achieving one without the protection of federal or state law.

Achieving Recognition:

This is arguably the most difficult obstacle you face. Normally, a group of employees gathers authorization cards from interested employees. These cards usually state that the employee wants the organization to represent them and contains the employee’s signature. The union or interested employees would take these cards to the employer to ask for voluntary recognition. If the employer refuses, the union goes to the NLRB or the equivalent state agency and requests an election. Because your rights are not recognized under federal or state law, you cannot petition for an election. This isn’t the worst thing in the world. You can still try to gather as many authorization cards as you can and then try to get CU to voluntary recognize your union. If you apply enough pressure to CU, they could very well choose to recognize you. The CRC and CU could also agree to hold an election and honor the results.

Collective Bargaining:

If you are able to get CU to recognize your labor organization, the next step would be to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. Generally, these agreements only cover work-related issues, so bargaining would encompass salary, tuition waivers, healthcare benefits, workload, childcare, etc. These agreements will not cover your grievances as students, such as graduation requirements and grades. Regardless of the terms of your collective bargaining agreement, it will be enforceable under state contract law as long as you and CU reach an agreement.

Protesting:

Since you are not protected by the NLRA or the Colorado Labor Peace Act, you are not guaranteed the right to strike without retaliation. This means that the University of Colorado could ostensibly terminate you for engaging in a strike. However, they are unlikely to do so because your unique skill set and hiring cycle makes it almost impossible to replace you promptly. A final thing to remember about protesting is that many unions give up the right to strike as part of their collective bargaining agreements as a way to gain concessions from their employer.

Summary

We strongly believe that if we want to change the culture of silenced exploitation of graduate employees, we must speak up and address the administration collectively. It is well known that the nature of graduate school can make it extremely difficult to speak up about the issues we face. Therefore the most effective way for us to address and resolve those issues and to protect our rights, is through a collective bargaining agreement. A CBA gives graduate employees the ability to negotiate collectively with the University on all conditions of employment, including all of the issues mentioned above. If you agree with our mission, we strongly encourage you to become a member of CRC and get involved in our efforts to become the collective voice of graduate employees.

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