Do grad students have the right to unionize?

The National Labor Relations Board has recently agreed to reconsider a 2004 ruling that defined teaching assistants at private institutions as students, not workers, and thereby without collective bargaining rights.

Mark Lennihan/Associated Press
In this April 29, 2015, file photo, students sit on the steps of Columbia University's Low Memorial Library in New York.

When New York University’s teaching assistants gained the right to collective bargaining 16 years ago, they became the first graduate students at a private institution to do so. Soon, others followed suit. But the students unions were short-lived.

Opposed to student labor organization, administrators from four schools including Brown appealed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The Bush-appointed board members ultimately ruled in their favor – that students aren’t actually workers, thus revoking their collective bargaining rights.

Now, this decade-old ruling may very well be reversed. At the end of last year, the NLRB agreed to review the petitions to unionize by grad students at Columbia University and their downtown cohorts at The New School.

If granted, a new precedent will be set for all private institutions in the United States, allowing them similar labor rights to which public university students are eligible.

“It is a democratic process,” says Olga Brudastova, a third-year PhD student of civil engineering at Columbia. “Virtually any kind of workers can have a union and bargain collectively.”

Under a collective bargaining contract, she tells The Christian Science Monitor, student employees would be able to negotiate insurance plans, maternity leave, and procedural workload standards – conditions otherwise not guaranteed by the university.

But according to Columbia’s trustees, Ms. Brudastova and her classmates are not workers – they were admitted to, not hired by the university and many of them receive financial aid. Ultimately, according to the university’s legal filings, “the relationship between graduate assistants and the university [is] principally educational, rather than economic.”

For teaching and research assistants at public universities, unionizing is often easier under the jurisdiction of state, rather than the federal NLRB, public sector labor laws. According to the United Auto Workers, a national union currently working with Columbia graduate students to unionize, more than 60 public universities have collective bargaining contracts with their student workers.

Right now, New York University (NYU) is the only private college to have organized labor among students. After the NLRB struck down student unions in 2004, activists at NYU continued their efforts in collective bargaining. They lobbied school administrators to voluntarily recognize a student union, and finally succeeded in 2013.

Again following the lead of NYU, Columbia and other private schools such as Yale and Cornell urged school administrators to willfully recognize their labor organizations and agree to negotiate – but to no avail.

Citing the 2004 NLRB decision, Columbia University has not complied.

“We fully understand that pursuing a PhD is a highly challenging path, both intellectually and personally,” Columbia said in a statement to The New York Times last March.

“Our graduate students are scholars in training whose teaching and research are an integral part of their doctoral studies. As the NLRB found in the Brown University case, we believe that treating students as employees could adversely affect their educational experience.”

Most of their graduate workers disagree, however. According to Brudastova, a member of the unofficial Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW 2110), 2,000 out of the school’s 2,800 graduate workers have signed cards saying they want to unionize.

“We do a lot of work, and of many different types whether it’s research or teaching,” she says. “What we do is crucial for the university because we fulfill major goals of the institution.”

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