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Can graduate students unionize? National labor board says yes.

The board's decision – which reverses a 2004 ruling – opens the way for graduate students at private colleges nationwide to unionize.

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    Students chat outside a classroom building at New York's Columbia University, May, 2015. On Tuesday, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Columbia University graduate students are employees under federal labor law.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
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Graduate students working as teaching assistants at private universities may unionize following a much-discussed ruling in their favor.

The National Labor Relations Board decided Tuesday on a case from Columbia University graduate students who said their status as employees required the right to collective bargaining with the university, The Wall Street Journal reported. The students believe access to unions will help them achieve better pay and benefits for the work they do while studying for a masters or doctorate degree. 

Both the cost and economic necessity of higher education and even graduate work have risen in recent years, giving private universities with sought-after names and reputations increasing power. This decision represents one effort by students to shift that power balance in their favor. 

"They perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated,” board members wrote of the students in the majority decision.

The debate attracted attention from officials at Stanford University, MIT, and the entire Ivy League, who said the graduate students employed by the university are not working for a living wage, but rather they are participating in mentored teaching to prepare for a career. They defined the issue as one of academic freedom and suggested it would undermine the university's ability to make teaching assignments to student assistants, Bloomberg reported.

The board ruled that graduate students fit the qualifications of employees with the right to collective bargaining as defined by the federal National Labor Relations Act. The majority insisted that the academic relationship does not undermine the plan to unionize.

“A graduate student may be both a student and an employee; a university may be both the student’s educator and employer,” the board wrote. 

The decision replaces the previous ruling – from a case at Brown University in 2004 – that said the student-school relationship pre-empted that of employer-employee. It does not affect students at public universities, many of whom have already unionized under the laws in individual states, according to Inside Higher Ed. 

Philip Miscimarra, the dissenting voice in the 3-1 decision and the board's only Republican, expressed concerns that unionization was not the appropriate way for students and families to address the steadily rising costs of higher education. In the minority dissent, he expressed concerns that the majority had overlooked the sheer volume of money in play.

“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,” Mr. Miscimarra wrote. “Yet there are no guarantees, and they might end up worse off.”

The Columbia students were petitioning the board to join the United Auto Workers. In contrast to both its name and its roots in the Detroit auto industry, the United Auto Workers has been working to recruit on campuses around the nation, as have several other unions, the Huffington Post reported. 

Either Columbia University or one of the other institutions implicated in the decision will likely challenge the board's decision in court. 

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