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Feds say grad students at private schools can unionize

Graduate students who perform certain services at private universities are considered employees and may unionize, the National Labor Relations Board said in a landmark ruling issued Tuesday.

The services at issue include teaching undergraduate courses and assisting professors with research projects.

The NLRB voted 3-1 in a much-watched case involving graduate students at Columbia University, as well as the New School, both in New York City, who had sought to unionize and join the United Auto Workers.

The panel's decision overturned a 2004 ruling against graduate students who had tried to unionize at Brown University.

Universities have typically opposed such unionization, arguing that academic work is a vital part of a master's degree program. As such, teaching and and research serve as part of the learning experience — and aren't about conditions of employment.

But the graduate assistants argued that they are by definition employees, filling in to cover classes and working long hours with pay that in some cases barely keeps them afloat — especially those with families — and forces many to rely on student loans to cover the wage gaps as they earn higher degrees.

The panel's decision is likely to impact thousands of graduate assistants nationwide as they are now allowed collective bargaining rights. Already, however, some schools have allowed grad students to unionize under state, not federal, law.

The board, in its decision, said that graduate students as a class of workers should be protected under the National Labor Relations Act. It wrote: "The board has the statutory authority to treat student assistants as statutory employees, where they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated. Statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the Act does not reach."

The lone dissenter on the NLRB, Philip A. Miscimarra, said the decision would cause future problems for universities. "Congress never intended that the [National Labor Relations Act] and collective bargaining would be the means by which students and their families might attempt to exercise control over such an extraordinary expense."

The Graduate Workers of Columbia, the name for the organized students, tweeted its excitement over the NLRB's decision: "This is a huge milestone for graduate workers across the country!" 

In Durham, North Carolina, about 30 graduate students celebrated Tuesday at Duke Chapel after word came of the NLRB's vote. They, like students at several other private campuses, are planning to unionize.

But Michael Schoenfeld, the school's vice president for public affairs and government relations, expressed concerns. "The NLRB decision doesn’t recognize the fact that students who engage in research and teaching as part of their programs of study are very different than employees," he said in a statement. "They are vital members of the academic community with quite different relationships to their professors than an employee has to a supervisor. Duke has made significant investments in stipends, insurance and other benefits to enhance their educational experience, not for the purpose of hiring or retaining them as employees."

The petition of the Columbia students was supported by a friend-of-the-court brief from the AFL-CIO.

"Higher education employers simply structure their apprentice programs differently from industrial, construction and other employers, adjusting the mix of classroom time and on-the-job training and providing a different compensation package. But the fact is that in each of these sectors, novice employees provide services in exchange for compensation," its brief said. "If graduate assistants are not employees under the Act, as Brown determined, then the well-established employee status of workers in these other on-the-job training programs would also be subject to question."

Faculty at several schools have supported students in efforts to unionize. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) also submitted an amicus brief in the case supporting the students and  hailed the NLRB's decision, tweeting it was "great news for student workers."

"Graduate employees deserve a seat at the table and a voice in higher education. Collective bargaining can provide that," said Howard Bounces, chair of the AAUP's Collective Bargaining Congress in a statement. "This is a tremendous victory for student workers and the AAUP stands ready to work with graduate employees to defend their rights, including rights to academic freedom and shared governance participation."

There are about 33 recognized grad student unions across the U.S. according to the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions. They include the University of Michigan, the University of Kansas, Wayne State University, Temple University and the University of Oregon.