Walter Reuther’s careful management of shop-floor politics shapes the UAW’s relationship to student workers today.

Barry Edlin:

Things are looking up for student worker unionism. For decades, the legions of graduate and undergraduate teaching and research assistants whose labor is critical to the daily functioning of universities have fought to establish a basic claim: the work they do is, in fact, work — it’s not just part of their education.

Now, it appears likely that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will rule later this year that these workers are in fact workers, and therefore entitled to union protections.

The decision would overturn the board’s 2004 Brown decision, which declared that student workers at private universities were students, not workers, and therefore ineligible to unionize. (Student workers at public universities in several states have had collective bargaining rights for decades, while other states prohibit any public sector workers from unionizing.)

This would be a long-overdue step forward for workers’ rights in academia. As university administrations model themselves more and more on corporations, and universities rely more and more on contingent labor, unions have become critically important for those in their employ.