Private-School Grad Students Can Unionize

     (CN) — Graduate students at private universities won the right to unionize Tuesday after the National Labor Relations Board overturned its prior decision that “deprived an entire category of workers” of labor protections.
     Tuesday’s 3-1 NLRB decision clarified language defining certain graduate students as employees, finding that “student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees under the [National Labor Relations] Act”.
     The ruling applied that standard to graduate assistants, including those engaged in research funded by external grants.
     The board’s majority reversed its own 2004 decision in Brown University, which the board called a sharply-divided decision, which itself overruled an earlier decision.”
     The reversal found that Brown University “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act, without a convincing justification in either the statutory language or the policies of the Act.”
     The NLRB concluded Tuesday that “all of the petitioned-for student-assistant classifications consist of statutory employees and that the petitioned-for bargaining unit (comprising graduate students, terminal Master’s degree students, and undergraduate students) is an appropriate unit.” (Parentheses in original.)
     The decision also found that none of the petitioned-for classifications consisted of temporary employees, who would not be included in the bargaining unit.
     Celebrating what they called “a huge milestone for graduate workers across the country,” the Graduate Workers of Columbia, or GWC-UAW, welcomed the NLRB’s decision.
     “The NLRB clearly recognizes the increasingly indispensable role we play in carrying out Columbia’s world-class research and teaching missions—we teach hundreds of classes and help bring in roughly $1 billion in research grants each year,” the union said in a statement.
     The GWC-UAW claimed that Columbia University “has fruitlessly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on an expensive outside law firm” to oppose their right to a union.
     The union said that with the newly-allowed collective bargaining rights, they could secure “provisions in a contract that Columbia could not change without our agreement—as they do frequently with our health and dental benefits.”
     According to the decision, there are 64,000 graduate student employees, organized at 28 institutions of higher education, with the University of Wisconsin at Madison first organizing in 1969.
     Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce was joined by board members Kent Y. Hirozawa and Lauren McFerran in the majority opinion.
     Philip A. Miscimarra dissented, saying that he believed “collective bargaining is likely to detract from the far more important goal of completing degree requirements in the allotted time, especially when one considers the potential consequences if students and/or universities resort to economic weapons against one another.”
     The NLRB’s reversal remanded the case to the agency’s Region 2 office in Manhattan for further action.
     In response to Tuesday’s decision, Columbia University released a statement expressing its disapproval.
     “While we are reviewing the ruling, Columbia — along with many of our peer institutions disagrees with this outcome because we believe the academic relationship students have with faculty members and departments as part of their studies is not the same as between employer and employee,” the school said. “First and foremost, students serving as research or teaching assistants come to Columbia to gain knowledge and expertise, and we believe there are legitimate concerns about the impact of involving a non-academic third-party in this scholarly training.”

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