NLRB rules that grad students are employees, opens door to unionization

The National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that grad students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities are employees covered by federal labor laws, a major decision that opens the door for graduate students across the country to unionize,

The 3-1 decision — which stems from a petition filed by a group of graduate students at Columbia University in New York who wished to join the United Auto Workers union — reverses a 2004 decision involving Rhode Island’s Brown University that had held that grad students are not employees because they are primarily students.

Matilda Stubbs, who is pursuing her doctorate in anthropology at Northwestern University, said she was “thrilled and encouraged” by the ruling after years of organizing efforts at the school have faltered. The option to form a union has been important to her so that student teachers can bargain for better health coverage, more assistance for students with dependents and to generally have a voice in decisions about their working lives.

“Having our multiple statuses — as students and as employees — established and clarified better enables everyone (students, employees, faculty, administration) to prevent and address workplace-related issues,” Stubbs wrote in an email. “This is a positive move for all parties involved.”

There are 34 collective bargaining units of graduate students in the U.S., the vast majority at public universities, which are governed by state labor laws and not the National Labor Relations Act, according to Bill Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, which is based at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York system.

Some research suggests commonly cited concerns about the impact of unions on academia don’t bear out.

A 2013 study that compared surveys from unionized grad students at public universities with nonunionized grad students at private universities found that perceptions about academic freedom and relationships with professors were as good or better at the public schools, said Paula Voos, professor at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations and co-author of the study.

Bob Bruno, a professor in the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois, said Tuesday’s ruling is “an appropriate decision that corrects an injustice.”

“Grad students are doing work and nothing about being a student subtracts from that employment reality,” he said. “The board’s ruling is part of a larger recognition that the workplace is changing and who performs that work has evolved, and it’s necessary that the protections of the nation’s labor law be extended.”

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