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In a Stark Reversal, the NLRB Rules Columbia University Graduate Students May Unionize

Yogi Patel - Wednesday, September 07, 2016

The National Labor Relations Board ruled late last month that student assistants working at private colleges and universities are “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act and can organize and form a union. This reverses the position of the Board, which ruled in 2004 that graduate teaching and research assistants were not employees, reasoning that the students’ relationship with the school was “primarily educational.”

In reversing its 12-year old position in the Brown University case, the NLRB wrote that it wrongly “deprived an entire category of workers the protections of the [National Labor Relations Act], without a convincing justification in either the statutory language or the policies” of the law.

The proper role of graduate students and their contributions outside the classroom has been a source of controversy and debate for nearly two decades, as both private and public institutions of higher education have grown more and more reliant on them for the institutions to operate. Many see increased use of graduate students and low-paid, temporary adjuncts as part of a movement away from full-time professors, a move that has been criticized by educators and students. Students also point out that such work is mandatory as part of many graduate programs, but the pay leaves some of them living in poverty while the time demands prevent them from obtaining other work to supplement their income without compromising their ability to fulfill academic needs.

Schools, on the other hand, argue that unionization could lead to negotiations about inherently educational factors, such as the length of classes, the content of curriculum, or the method or amount of grading.

The Columbia University ruling allows graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants, as well as graduate and departmental research assistants at Columbia University to join Graduate Workers of Columbia-GWC, UAW, but not before the case is reviewed again by an NLRB Manhattan regional director, who must still determine who is eligible to vote in the union election.

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