Graduate Students At Private Universities Can Now Unionize

A big decision against Columbia University could impact private universities throughout the country.
Mike Segar/Reuters

The National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that graduate assistants at Columbia University are eligible to unionize, a highly anticipated decision that will reverberate throughout higher education.

In its 3-1 ruling, the board upended a 2004 decision that argued graduate students are primarily at school to learn, not to work, and therefore shouldn’t be considered “employees.” The current board took an axe to that earlier ruling, declaring that grad students who teach and do research are indeed employees under the law and should be able to bargain collectively if they want to.

It doesn’t matter if grad students are there to be educated, the majority of three Democrats said. What matters is they are also doing work and being compensated for it ― which makes them employees.

“A graduate student may be both a student and an employee; a university may be both the student’s educator and employer,” they wrote. (The full ruling can be read here.)

Many grad students at public universities already have the right to unionize, if they are subject to their own state laws that allow it. But the decision issued Tuesday could impact private schools throughout the country, spurring graduate students elsewhere to pursue organizing campaigns with unions.

The Columbia grad students are represented by a local branch of the United Auto Workers, which, despite being known for its Detroit roots, has been organizing on campuses for years. So have the American Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union, among others.

In opposing the campaign, Columbia found the backing of several other schools, including the entire Ivy League.

Given the seriousness of the case, the board took the rare step of issuing a statement to address the decision.

“For 45 years, the National Labor Relations Board has exercised jurisdiction over private, nonprofit universities such as Columbia,” it said in the statement. “In that time, the Board has had frequent cause to apply the [law] to faculty in the university setting, which has been upheld by the Supreme Court.”

Philip A. Miscimarra, the board’s lone sitting Republican, issued a dissent saying that his colleagues erred in overturning the earlier ruling, which involved Brown University. Miscimarra argued that union rights could transform the relationship between students and their school, and not necessarily for the better.

“Collective bargaining often produces short-term winners and losers, and a student assistant in some cases may receive some type of transient benefit as a result of collective bargaining pursuant to today’s decision,” he wrote. “Yet there are no guarantees, and they might end up worse off.”

The board’s Democratic majority of recent years has tended to side with unions over employers in contentious cases, bringing the wrath of congressional Republicans and business groups. The board usually consists of five members ― three from the party of the sitting president, and two from across the aisle. The seat of the second Republican has not been filled since it was vacated last year.

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