University of Rochester and Syracuse University Graduate Students Are Coming Together for a Voice!

Yesterday, we joined with graduate students, student supporters, Assemblyman Harry Bronson, and other allies to celebrate the NLRB decision restoring collective bargaining rights to graduate assistants across the country and to launch organizing drives at UofR and Syracuse University. Check out the press clips and read our press release kicking off this next chapter in our journey to raise standards in higher education!

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On Wednesday, graduate students and faculty at the University of Rochester and Syracuse University celebrated a new milestone in a movement to raise standards in higher education. Outside the Rush Reeves Library on the University of Rochester campus, graduate assistants and their supporters gathered to announce their own plans to start organizing their colleagues and form their own union in the wake of yesterday’s announcement from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In a 3-to-1 vote, the NLRB ruled that graduate assistants performing work in connection with their studies have a right to form unions. Across the country, graduate students cheered the decision, reversing the 2004 Brown University decision that blocked graduate students from collective bargaining.

Andrew Thomas, a graduate assistant at the University of Rochester and former adjunct instructor of teaching and curriculum, cheered the decision and said, “As someone who has been involved with organizing graduate assistants at the University of Rochester, I am excited about this decision. It validates the work we have been doing as graduate assistants to win a voice in our pay and working conditions. Here at the University of Rochester, we have already been working with SEIU and our fellow academic student employees and plan to continue to organize our union.”

While their public college and university peers in New York have long had collective bargaining rights, graduate students at private universities did not have such rights. Colleges and universities rely on graduate student labor to teach undergraduates and support the research projects of tenured and tenure-track faculty. They are often not afforded an adequate voice on campus. Their pay fails to keep pace with the cost of living and fees imposed by University administrations are often increased unilaterally, without their input. Many often lack healthcare coverage and basic protections against workplace harassment and discrimination. After completing their studies, far too many will not find permanent, full-time work in their chosen field and many become adjunct or contingent faculty, forced to piece together an income working at various institutions.

bronsonuofrLyle Jeremy Rubin, a graduate assistant at the University of Rochester and doctoral candidate in History, added, “For decades, those at the top in higher education and other businesses have decreased labor costs while maximizing profits. More and more of us find ourselves tussling for the crumbs. In the face of such a destructive trend, as a graduate assistant, I’ve been proud to support fast-food workers, contingent faculty and graduate assistants organizing for living wages and union rights, and there’s no doubt academic student employees like myself at the University of Rochester must now fight for the same representation. That’s why we’ve been working with Faculty Forward and SEIU to win a stronger voice on campus. We’re all in this together. An injury to one is an injury to all.”

Tahlia Fischer, a former graduate instructor at Syracuse University and current adjunct professor at Ithaca College, added, “I am excited about the NLRB’s decision to allow academic student employees the right to form their union. It is my experience that graduate student instructors fare better when they win a voice on campus for better working conditions. Working closely with SEIU at Ithaca College, I am delighted that Syracuse University graduate instructors will have the same opportunity to win their own union.”

Tuesday’s NLRB ruling, in overturning the 2004 Brown decision, finally allows graduate students to unionize. The process that ultimately led to this reversal was initiated by petitions brought on by graduate students at Columbia University and the New School, working with the United Autoworkers (UAW). UAW represents graduate students at New York University (NYU), who voluntarily recognized their union and are the only graduate students at a private college or university covered by a collective bargaining agreement. Elsewhere, SEIU is working with graduate assistants at Duke University in North Carolina, Northwestern University in Chicago, and St. Louis University in Missouri.

Local labor, faith, and elected leaders joined graduate students from both universities in lauded the NLRB’s decision.

Scott Phillipson, President of SEIU Local 200United and recently elected member of the SEIU International Executive Board, praised the NLRB decision and said, “The issues facing graduate assistants are the same issues facing the contingent faculty and other staff we represent at over 25 colleges and universities in New York and Vermont, including the University of Rochester and Syracuse University. Our members make it their mission to provide good jobs and affordable benefits. That’s why they are working with contingent faculty and now graduate assistants to change the landscape of higher education so that all members of the campus community have a voice.”

Emily McNeil, the Labor Religion Coalition of New York State’s Acting Director, added, “Membership in a union is a key factor in workers’ ability to have a voice and say in their working conditions. The work of graduate students provides tremendous value to colleges and universities, and without union representation these workers are vulnerable to exploitation and poverty. We applaud this decision by the NLRB, and urge private colleges and universities around the state to voluntarily recognize graduate student unions and negotiate fairly, without delay.”

“I applaud the graduate student employees of Columbia University for their determination and commitment to fight for a better future for themselves and all workers on our college campuses,” said Assemblymember Harry Bronson of Rochester. “New York law is clear; an employer is prohibited from interfering with the right of workers to organize. I firmly believe in the importance of protections for all employees, and over the years, have strongly supported ‘pro-worker’ legislation that has strengthened their rights to: collectively bargain; a fair and livable wage; access to unemployment insurance benefits and workers compensation coverage. Today’s ruling re-enforces those fundamental rights.”

“Everyone wins when workers are allowed to organize,” said Assemblywoman Pamela Hunter of Syracuse. “Graduate students are employees, teaching in the classroom and performing essential research work for our Colleges and Universities. I applaud the NLRB’s decision.”


Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 200United is a union of 15,000 workers across Upstate New York and Vermont. As well members who work in school districts and the human services industry, Local 200United members work at over 25 colleges and universities, including University of Rochester and Syracuse University. Since 2014, over 2,000 adjunct and contingent faculty at seven colleges have joined Faculty Forward, a project of SEIU Local 200United, in the Finger Lakes, Capital District and Burlington, VT.

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