In a victory for student teaching assistants nationwide, the National Labor Relations Board ruled today that graduate students can unionize.
The NLRB released a statement the decision:
The National Labor Relations Board issued a 3-1 decision in Columbia University that student assistants working at private colleges and universities are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act. The Graduate Workers of Columbia-GWC, UAW filed an election petition seeking to represent both graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants, along with graduate and departmental research assistants at the university in December 2014. The majority reversed Brown University (342 NLRB 483) saying it “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act without a convincing justification.”
For 45 years, the National Labor Relations Board has exercised jurisdiction over private, nonprofit universities such as Columbia. In that time, the Board has had frequent cause to apply the Act to faculty in the university setting, which has been upheld by the Supreme Court.
Federal courts have made clear that the authority to define the term “employee” rests primarily with the Board absent an exception enumerated within the National Labor Relations Act. The Act contains no clear language prohibiting student assistants from its coverage. The majority found no compelling reason to exclude student assistants from the protections of the Act.
Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce was joined by Members Kent Y. Hirozawa and Lauren McFerran in the majority opinion. Member Philip A. Miscimarra dissented in the case.
The decision reverses the case dismissal by the Regional Director and remands the case to the Agency’s Region 2 Office in Manhattan for further action.
The case reverses a 2004 NLRB decision, involving the UAW and Brown University, that said graduate students weren't employees and couldn't collectively bargain, claiming they were "primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.”
Paul Katz, of Graduate Workers at Columbia, told the Columbia Spectator, "We're throughly excited that the NLRB has ruled in our favor. It's particularly exciting that this is paying off not only at Columbia but across the country."
Columbia's graduate students, who got a raise earlier in the summer, will vote on whether to join the UAW.
A spokesperson for Columbia told the NY Times, "While we are reviewing the ruling, 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."