Weekend News & Commentary — March 12–13, 2016
While the NLRB gears up to reconsider its previous position that graduate students are not entitled to organize under the National Labor Relations Act, unionization efforts are already underway at an increasing number of universities. Lydia DePillis of the Washington Post reports on one example of this trend at Yale University, where graduate students and allies recently celebrated the formation of a new local chapter of UNITE-HERE. However, although some institutions have opted to negotiate voluntarily with graduate student unions, Yale has offered no indication that it will do so: Yale is a signatory to an amicus brief submitted to the NLRB by Ivy League schools (along with MIT and Stanford), urging the Board not to reverse its 2004 finding that graduate students are not employees within the meaning of the NLRA. DePillis further reports that the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences even “put up posters displaying how much PhD candidates cost the university: They receive a full-tuition fellowship worth $38,700, plus a minimum stipend of $29,000.” For their part, union leaders at Yale say that “they’re not just fighting over pay and benefits, but also the rights of historically marginalized communities in academia. In that context, being heard is one thing, and having real power is another.” As one organizer put it: “We just want the chance to vote, to democratically decide on the future of our time here and our work and our conditions.”
This past week, as women around the world celebrated International Women’s Day, female garment workers in Cambodia found little reason to rejoice. Writing in Aljazeera, Nathan A. Thompson observes that the workers still “face almost the same problems that the founders of International Women’s Day confronted more than 100 years ago: scant wages, long hours and repression of unions.” Thompson reports that the holiday appears to have roots in the New York shirtwaist strike of 1909, when 20,000 workers — comprised mostly of immigrant women — walked off of their jobs. “I feel happy for them, but it’s not easy for us to do the same,” said one Cambodian garment worker when told the story. In Cambodia, “[g]arment workers still work 70-hour weeks during peak season, and discrimination against union members is rampant.” Sexual harassment and age discrimination also continue to plague the Cambodian garment industry. “They will fire older women and recruit young girls because they want pretty girls to work in their factory,” stated another worker. Nevertheless, despite all of these challenges, some workers still manage to organize: the Cambodian government recently raised the monthly minimum wage from $128 to $140 in the wake of union calls for a living wage of $160 a month.
Commuters in the Garden State breathed a sigh of relief on Friday night, as New Jersey Transit and rail workers reached tentative agreement on a new labor contract. The deal averted a strike that would have begun today. The New York Times notes that “[t]he agency’s more than 4,200 rail workers had been working without a new contract since 2011,” and that unions representing the workers were seeking “wage rates and benefits comparable to those of other transit workers in the region, including employees of the Long Island Rail Road.” However, agency officials initially balked at the request, claiming that “they could not afford to meet the unions’ demands and might have to raise fares.” Although terms of the contract — which is to last through 2019 — were not initially available, Governor Chris Christie stated that “he was pleased with the deal,” characterizing it as “fair and reasonable” and noting that it would “not prompt a fare increase.”