In long-awaited decision, labor board says graduate students can unionize at private universities

Private universities will need to recognize graduate students who conduct research and help teach classes as employees and therefore accept the unions that they form, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday.

In a 3-1 decision, the board ruled that undergraduate and graduate student assistants and research assistants are statutory employees and are therefore covered by the National Labor Relations Act. The decision opens the door for the students and research assistants at private universities to band together to negotiate issues like pay, benefits, workload, and class size.

The decision came in response to a petition from graduate students at Columbia University and reversed a previous decision involving Brown University that found private universities are not required to recognize graduate student unions.

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In the new decision, board members wrote that the Brown decision not only had an incorrect interpretation of the act, “but also because of the nature and consequences of that error.” The decision “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act,” the members wrote.

Ahead of the decision, graduate students had been running union drives and preparing for union elections at top institutions including Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, and the University of Chicago. The efforts ramped up after New York University became the first private university to voluntarily recognize its graduate student union in 2013.

Harvard, Stanford, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were among the universities that opposed the petition before the board, warning that giving graduate students collective bargaining rights could destroy the mentor-student relationship.

Allen Aloise, dean for administration and fninance at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, told STAT earlier this year that doctoral candidates “are students first” and that “it would be a mistake to change that relationship.”

The universities said that doctoral students were not employees because the research they conducted led them to their PhDs. Doctoral students often don’t pay tuition and in part do research and assist professors as part of the deal to get a degree tuition free.

The universities also argued that they could face disruptive grievances and years-long disputes over everything from graduate students having to grade essays, which students’ tuition got waived, and how many credits a student needed to become a teaching assistant.

The United Automobile Workers (which, despite its name, represents workers mostly from outside the auto industry nowadays) helped lead the union drive at institutions like Harvard. The union represents student unions at public institutions and NYU.

Students involved said that unionizing would allow them to negotiate stable livable stipends instead of having to rely in part on grants.

Graduate students also said that they could be both students and employees. When they were doing their own research, they were students. But when they were teaching classes, they were employees.

via STAT

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