Union Victory for Student Employees

By Aaron Nisenson

In a victory for student employees and the unions that represent them, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found in the case Columbia University that student assistants working at private colleges and universities are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act. The 3–1 decision, issued on August 23, overrules a 2004 decision in Brown University, which had found that graduate assistants were not employees and therefore did not have statutory rights to unionize.

“Graduate employees deserve a seat at the table and a voice in higher education. Collective bargaining can provide that,” says Howard Bunsis, chair of the AAUP Collective Bargaining Congress. “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.”

The case was brought by the Graduate Workers of Columbia, which in 2014 had filed an election petition seeking to represent both graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants, along with graduate and departmental research assistants.

The AAUP filed an amicus brief with the NLRB arguing that graduate assistants at private-sector institutions should be considered employees with collective bargaining rights and that collective bargaining promotes academic freedom. The brief further argued that rather than harming faculty-student mentoring relationships, graduate employee unionization can bring clarity to the employer-employee relationship.

In reversing Brown, the majority said that the earlier decision “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act without a convincing justification.” The board also agreed that granting collective bargaining rights to student employees would not infringe on First Amendment academic freedom, nor would it harm the faculty-student relationship.

The NLRB exercises jurisdiction over private-sector employers, including private nonprofit universities such as Columbia, and 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 does not specifically exclude student assistants from its coverage, and the majority found no compelling reason to exclude them.

“This decision rightfully reflects what graduate workers at NYU and other private universities have now been arguing for decades— that we are employees and deserve the same rights as other workers to organize and collectively bargain. TAs, RAs, and other graduate workers literally make our universities work. Our contracts at NYU demonstrate the power of unionization; they have significantly improved the wages, working conditions, and lives of graduate workers,” says Matt Canfield, a member of the AAUP’s Committee on Graduate and Professional Students and a graduate employee at New York University.

The AAUP has long been committed to organizing graduate employees and currently represents such employees at a number of public-sector institutions. Graduate employees represented by the AAUP have seen significant gains as a result of bargaining, and the NLRB’s decision will allow student employees in the private sector to organize and seek similar improvements.

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