On an October evening in 2017, Natalia Piland, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, gathered with classmates at a popular Hyde Park bar to celebrate what seemed like a turning point: Teaching and research assistants at the university had voted to unionize.
“People were really emotional,” said Ms. Piland, who started attending union meetings in 2016. “We finally saw the fruits of our labor.”
As she toasted the victory, Ms. Piland thought she could see the path ahead — formal recognition by the university, a fast start to the bargaining process and a contract guaranteeing more timely stipend payments and other benefits for students with teaching and research responsibilities.
But she soon found that campus organizing was not that simple. “We really thought the university was going to respect that election,” said Ms. Piland, who is about to begin her sixth year as a Ph.D. candidate in biology. “It was a little naïve.”
Three years ago, the National Labor Relations Board announced a landmark ruling that gave teaching and research assistants at private universities a federally backed right to unionize, paving the way for students at universities across the country to hold legally binding union votes. But in many cases, a quagmire followed.
Despite holding successful elections, students at the University of Chicago, Yale, Boston College and several other universities have faced staunch opposition from college administrators, as well as a shifting political and regulatory landscape.
Over the last two years, President Trump has replaced labor officials who helped orchestrate the 2016 decision with conservative board members who have moved to limit union powers. On Friday, the N.L.R.B. proposed a new regulation that would effectively reverse the board’s previous decision, stripping unionization rights from teaching and research assistants at private universities.
The board’s jurisdiction covers private universities because the National Labor Relations Act applies to the private sector.
Graduate-student organizers have long argued that their teaching responsibilities make them employees as well as students. On top of her studies at the University of Chicago, Ms. Piland has helped teach four undergraduate courses, holding office hours, leading field trips and planning discussion sections.
Proponents say unionization would help secure better health coverage for students and stronger protections against sexual harassment or discrimination by faculty members who exercise significant power over their professional futures. National labor organizations like the United Automobile Workers and the American Federation of Teachers have provided graduate-student unions with advice and training.
But while these unions have existed at public universities for decades, administrators at many private institutions contend that unionization would create a more adversarial relationship between teaching assistants and professors, undermining the university’s academic mission.
“Graduate students are students, first and foremost,” the University of Chicago’s provost, Daniel Diermeier, wrote in a message to the campus community in June. “They come to the university to study, to learn how to teach future generations of students and to make original contributions in their chosen fields of knowledge.”
Since the 2016 decision, in a case brought by Columbia students, a number of graduate student unions have made impressive gains. Before the decision, only one such union had a contract with a private university. Now five do, and 15 universities have held union votes since 2016, according to researchers at Hunter College.
After years of resistance, Harvard and Columbia agreed to bargain. And last fall, union organizers at Tufts negotiated a contract that included paid parental leave, as well as a significant increase in the graduate-student stipend.
“Student workers have come together to fight for our shared interests, to fight for protections that we need to feel safe in our workplace,” said Colleen Baublitz, a union organizer and graduate student at Columbia. “We are really powerful in offering much of the labor that universities now rely on to run.”
The progress has been uneven, however. In 2017, Yale graduate students held successful union votes in a handful of academic departments. But university administrators never formally recognized the union, despite a high-profile hunger strike and a protest march on commencement morning.
“The window may have closed for them,” said William Gould, a former N.L.R.B. chairman who teaches labor law at Stanford University. “Union organizing is very much a matter of momentum, and it may be that they lost that momentum.”
Even before the board’s move on Friday, some unionization efforts were in retreat. After the University of Chicago challenged the legal basis of its students’ vote, the union there and groups at Yale, Boston College and the University of Pennsylvania withdrew their labor petitions in 2018 rather than risk a battle in which the Columbia decision might be overturned by the N.L.R.B.
And at universities where contract negotiations have taken place, the unions have sometimes found it difficult to secure concrete gains. Over the past few months, the bargaining process at Harvard has stalled over the union’s demand for an independent adjudication system to resolve members’ claims of sexual harassment and discrimination.
“This is one of the factors that was driving the union ‘yes’ vote in our election,” said Ege Yumusak, a third-year philosophy student who belongs to the Harvard Graduate Students Union, which is affiliated with the U.A.W. “It’s a strike issue.”
Ms. Yumusak said some bargaining sessions with the university had grown tense, as graduate students described sexual harassment they had experienced at Harvard. With no agreement in sight, the union is planning a strike-authorization vote in the fall.
A Harvard spokesman said the university was concerned that a new arbitration system would violate federal law by creating a process for union members only, separate from the provisions of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
“It is unfortunate that a work disruption is being considered,” said the spokesman, Jonathan L. Swain. “There remains an ongoing commitment on the part of the university to these negotiations.”
It’s not clear how the N.L.R.B.’s proposed rule will affect universities where bargaining is underway. Mr. Swain said Harvard was reviewing the proposed rule to “assess what implications it may have.” Columbia said it had no immediate comment.
But the regulation could give universities the upper hand in negotiations.
“This could be an additional reason that they could articulate or rely upon to discontinue bargaining, or limit bargaining on certain issues,” said Mr. Gould, the former N.L.R.B. chairman. “The only option for the union then would be to go to the very N.L.R.B. that had established a contrary position.”
The rule proposed Friday is the latest swing on an issue that has divided the board along partisan lines for two decades. In 2000, the N.L.R.B. overturned a longstanding precedent and gave students at New York University the right to unionize. But that ruling was reversed in 2004, in a decision involving Brown University, before the board switched back to the pro-union standard in 2016.
In the proposed rule, the N.L.R.B. states that students at private universities who “perform services” related to their studies are “primarily students with a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.” After a 60-day period for public comment, the board will revisit the proposal.
“This rule-making is intended to obtain maximum input on this issue from the public, and then to bring stability to this important area of federal labor law,” John F. Ring, the chairman of the N.L.R.B., said in a statement.
The N.L.R.B. has generally used its rule-making authority to clarify existing precedents and has reserved its more sweeping judgments for decisions adjudicating individual cases. The current board, however, has outlined an unusually ambitious rule-making agenda that seeks to change a number of longstanding labor practices.
Ms. Yumusak, the Harvard philosophy student, called the proposed graduate-student rule “an egregious and desperate misuse of power.” Andrew Crook, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, said graduate students were planning to rally at the N.L.R.B. offices next month and submit comments to the board calling for the rule to be scrapped.
In any case, union advocates at the University of Chicago plan to push for their agenda outside the formal bargaining process. Even without recognition, the organizers say, graduate students have made progress on a number of fronts, securing child-care grants and improvements to the school’s parental-leave policies.
The union has also held demonstrations intended to increase pressure on administrators. In June, graduate students went on strike for three days, carrying picket signs that left little doubt that the work stoppage was occurring on an elite college campus. “Theorem: Our union is well-defined,” one sign read. “Proof: graduate students = workers.”
“We’ve become increasingly annoying to them, and I do think that’s how a lot of workplace organizing gets done,” said Laura Colaneri, a union member who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Hispanic and Brazilian studies.
“Eventually,” she said, “the tide does turn.”