Graduate Students Can Unionize at Private Colleges, U.S. Labor Panel Rules

By Melanie Trottman and Melissa Korn

– A federal labor board ruled that graduate students who teach at private universities are employees with full rights to join unions, a sweeping decision that paves the way for student unionization on campuses nationwide.

In a 3-1 decision announced Tuesday, the National Labor Relations Board said a group of Columbia University students who sought to join a union deserved employee protections when they get paid for work at the direction of the school.

The victory for the Columbia students could deliver tens of thousands of new members to the nation’s beleaguered labor movement, which has seen its ranks decline dramatically.

For private colleges and universities, it could raise salary costs and prove disruptive to administrators unaccustomed to bargaining about how graduate students learn and work. Injecting collective bargaining into graduate programs could limit schools’ ability to choose who teaches particular classes, and when. It could also make the schools subject to strikes by unionized graduate students.

The decision also applies to undergraduate students who take on teaching duties. The unit the Columbia students were part of also included undergraduate teaching assistants.

“In their broad-based decision, the NLRB swept aside decades of earlier history and basically said that any student who does either research or teaching in a private-sector institution will be considered a school employee entitled to be represented by a union,” said Joseph Ambash, a Boston lawyer who helped write a brief filed by several prestigious universities arguing against a pro-union decision.

At issue is whether graduate students are mostly students or employees, and whether the teaching and research they perform as an integral part of their education exempts them from employee status.

University administrators argued that while the majority of graduate students receive financial support from their schools, they aren’t working in a trade for wages but are being educated to prepare for a career.

Union groups say the students provide essential services for universities and should be considered employees if they act at least in part to serve their employer.

The NLRB’s Democratic majority, in their ruling, said there is no clear language in the National Labor Relations Act that prohibits teaching assistants from getting the same protections of employees, which includes the right to unionize.

The NLRB oversees unionization elections and referees workplace disputes in most of the private sector. It doesn’t have jurisdiction in the public sector. A small portion of the roughly one million graduate students at public universities have been unionized for decades. There are roughly 535,000 graduate students currently enrolled at private colleges.

Colleges stood firm Tuesday in their belief that their teaching assistants are students, not employees.

“Columbia—along with many of our peer institutions—disagrees with this outcome because we believe the academic relationship students have with faculty members and departments as part of their studies is not the same as between employer and employee,” the university said in a statement.

Anna Cowenhoven, a spokeswoman for Harvard University, said a union representing its students “will impact not only current students, but also faculty, staff, and future students.”

The Service Employees International Union said that because of the ruling, students at several universities plan to take immediate steps to try to join the union, including graduate assistants at Duke, Northwestern, St. Louis University and American University.

“Colleges and universities that used to provide a pathway to the American dream are now becoming a road to poverty for students who find themselves saddled with debt and graduate workers and faculty who are unable to support their families on low pay,” said SEIU President Mary Kay Henry.

Paul Katz, who is entering his fourth year of a PhD program in Latin American history at Columbia, said that 2½ years of organizing efforts on campus have already pushed the school to be somewhat more responsive to graduate workers’ needs, such as by extending paid family leave and childcare subsidies. They are “suddenly willing to move on a number of things that graduate workers cared about for a long time,” he said.

Columbia announced last month that it would raise its standard stipend for many PhD student workers by at least 3.75% for the coming academic year, and at least 3% for each of the following three years. It also adjusted its child care, fee-waiver and leave benefits in May.

Duke graduate students started to organize this spring with an eye toward unionizing if the NLRB ruled in favor of the Columbia students.

Anastasia Karklina, a PhD candidate in literature at Duke, said, “There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the working conditions and lot of desire for change.” She added, “I think many of us are feeling very hopeful and very motivated to continue collectively organizing.”

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