NLRB Ruling Allows Grad Students at Private Universities to Form Unions

Student organizers hail 'milestone' victory

Columbia University / Alejandro Mallea
August 23, 2016

The federal government’s top labor arbiter reversed a 12-year-old precedent to allow graduate students at private universities to organize labor unions on Tuesday.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students at Columbia University were within their rights to form a labor union for their work as teaching assistants. The board’s three Democratic appointees, led by Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce, said that graduate students are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act, rather than simply pupils.

"We hold today that student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees under the Act. We will apply that standard to student assistants, including assistants engaged in research funded by external grants," the board said in a 3-1 ruling.

The case emerged after Columbia University graduate students working as teaching and research assistants decided to join the United Automobile Workers union. The university challenged their ability to organize a bargaining unit because of their status as students. The union appealed regional NLRB decisions to the agency’s top board, which is made up of three Democrats and one Republican.

Grad student organizers called the decision a "milestone" victory.

"We are excited we have finally reached this important milestone and look forward to a speedy, fair election so we can demonstrate our majority support, and get into bargaining as soon as possible," said engineering research assistant Olga Brudastova in a union release. "Columbia administrators have stood in the way of our rights. By standing together, graduate workers have already won major, university-wide improvements, and with a union, we’ll be able to secure those improvements and make Columbia do even better."

This is not the first time that the board has dealt with the question of graduate students. A Democrat-controlled board ruled in 2000 that graduate students at New York University could be classified as employees because "ample evidence exists to find that graduate assistants plainly and literally fall within the meaning of ‘employee.’"

The Republican-controlled NLRB reversed that ruling in 2004, saying that grad students at Brown University could not form a bargaining unit because they were "primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university." President Obama’s board disagreed, saying that the educational relationship does not come at the expense of the economic one.

"It is appropriate to extend statutory coverage to students working for universities covered by the Act unless there are strong reasons not to do so," the board ruled (emphasis in the original). "We are not persuaded by the Brown University Board."

The board ruled in Columbia that graduate students perform work on par with university employees. Their research work provides monetary value to the university by generating grants, while teaching assistants act as instructors. The board noted that "private nonprofit colleges and universities generate a third of their revenue from tuition, and 13 percent from government grants, contracts and appropriations"—all work that is performed by graduate assistants.

"There is undoubtedly a significant economic component to the relationship between universities, like Columbia, and their student assistants," the board said.

The university argued that it should not have to recognize the union because graduate students benefit from their research and teaching work as much as the university. The experience, university lawyers argued, will serve their educational interests and advance their career development. The board dismissed this position because "the fact that a research assistant’s work might advance his own educational interests as well as the University’s interests is not a barrier to finding statutory-employee status."

Republican board member Philip Miscimarra dissented from his colleagues. He said the imposition of the adversarial collective bargaining process would add "complexity" to the university’s otherwise straightforward goal of educating its students and the students’ goal of attaining a degree.

"Congress never intended that the NLRA and collective bargaining would be the means by which students and their families might attempt to exercise control over such an extraordinary expense," he said in his dissent. "Collective bargaining is likely to detract from the far more important goal of completing degree requirements in the allotted time, especially when one considers the potential consequences if students and/or universities resort to economic weapons against one another."

The university said it is still reviewing the ruling, but expressed its initial disagreement because "the academic relationship students have with faculty members and departments as part of their studies is not the same as between employer and employee."

"Students serving as research or teaching assistants come to Columbia to gain knowledge and expertise, and we believe there are legitimate concerns about the impact of involving a non-academic third-party in this scholarly training," the university said in a statement.

The university has the option to challenge the NLRB ruling in federal court.

Published under: Education , NLRB , Unions