NLRB: Graduate Students at Private Universities May Unionize

Federal labor board overturns ruling that denied collective bargaining rights to many teaching and research assistants.
By Scott Jaschik

Graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities are entitled to collective bargaining, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday.

The NLRB said that a previous ruling by the board — that these workers were not entitled to collective bargaining because they are students — was flawed. The NLRB ruling, 3 to 1, came in a case involving a bid by the United Auto Workers to organize graduate students at Columbia University. The decision reverses a 2004 decision — which has been the governing one until today — about a similar union drive at Brown University.

Many graduate students at public universities are already unionized, as their right to do so is covered by state law, not federal law.

The ruling largely rejects the fights of previous boards over whether teaching assistants should be seen primarily as students or employees. They can be both, the majority decision said.

“The board has the statutory authority to treat student assistants as statutory employees, where they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated. Statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the [National Labor Relations] Act does not reach,” says the decision.

Universities have argued — and a past ruling by the NLRB agreed — that collective bargaining could intrude on the educational relationship between graduate students and their universities. That argument “is unsupported by legal authority, by empirical evidence or by the board’s actual experience,” the decision says.

Past bans on the unionization of graduate students at private universities “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the act without a convincing justification,” the decision says.

The three NLRB members who backed the decision were Mark Gaston Pearce (the chairman), Kent Y. Hirozawa and Lauren McFerran.

Philip A. Miscimarra voted against the decision and issued a dissent.

“My colleagues disregard” the enormous expense faced by many students these days to finance higher education, he wrote. “Congress never intended that the [National Labor Relations Act] and collective bargaining would be the means by which students and their families might attempt to exercise control over such an extraordinary expense.”

An NLRB ruling affirming the right of graduate students at private universities has been a major goal of academic labor during the Obama administration. Prolonged fights over NLRB nominees, however, slowed down the process by which the board could rule. Many have expected a ruling in favor of the UAW. In July, Columbia awarded an unprecedented pay increase to its graduate workers ahead of the likely ruling.

It remains possible if not likely that Columbia or other universities will challenge the NLRB decision in court. For now, however, graduate students at Columbia are celebrating.