NLRB: Graduate students at private universities can unionize

  • In a 3-1 vote, the NLRB ruled Tuesday that graduate students across the country who have been demanding higher wages for on-campus jobs may now form unions.
  • The ruling mainly applies to private universities, because grad students at most public schools are already allowed to unionize under state law.

Graduate students across the country who have been demanding higher wages for on-campus jobs were handed a victory by the federal government, which is now allowing them to unionize.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled Tuesday that graduate students working as teaching and research assistants at private universities are entitled to collective bargaining, Inside Higher Ed reports, reversing a 2004 NLRB ruling stating that student workers are not entitled to collective bargaining.

"The board has the statutory authority to treat student assistants as statutory employees."   

The 3-to-1 ruling came in a case involving the United Automobile Workers efforts to organize graduate students at Columbia University, with Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce, Kent Hirozawa, and Lauren McFerran all supporting the decision.

[RELATED: Harvard grad students are attempting to unionize]

"The board has the statutory authority to treat student assistants as statutory employees, where they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated," the decision reads. “Statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the [National Labor Relations] Act does not reach.”

Universities had previously argued that collective bargaining could “intrude on the educational relationship between graduate students and their universities,” but the NLRB rejected that argument, calling it "unsupported by legal authority, by empirical evidence, or by the board’s actual experience."

At many public institutions, graduate students are already unionized under state law, but the NLRB decreed Tuesday that bans on the unionization of graduate students at private universities "deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the act without a convincing justification."

[RELATED: NLRB: part-time faculty at Duquesne can unionize]

NLRB board member Philip Miscimarra, who voted against the decision, argued that his colleagues “disregard the enormous expense faced by many students these days to finance higher education,” asserting that “Congress never intended that the [National Labor Relations Act] and collective bargaining would be the means by which students and their families might attempt to exercise control over such an extraordinary expense."

In July, Columbia awarded a pay increase to its graduate workers ahead of the ruling, though Columbia and other private universities may still choose to challenge the recent NLRB ruling in court.

[RELATED: Feds decline to support unionization of Northwestern athletes]

Meanwhile, the Graduate Workers of Columbia tweeted that the ruling was “a huge milestone for graduate workers across the country!”

Campus Reform reached out to the NRLB for comment, but was told “the decision and press release speak for themselves.”

Campus Reform also reached out to Columbia University, the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers, and the National Right to Work Committee, but did not receive a response in time for publication. This article will be updated if and when a comment is received.

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Autumn Price
Autumn Price | Virginia Campus Correspondent

Autumn Price is a Virginia Campus Correspondent, and reports liberal bias and abuse on campus for Campus Reform. She is a law student at Liberty University School of Law.

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