NLRB is correct that graduate student workers are employees
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On Tuesday, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate student teaching and research assistants at private universities should be considered employees, thereby giving them the right to form unions and engage in collective bargaining. In the Columbia University decision, the board overturned the 2004 Brown University decision by President George W. Bush's NLRB.


The 2004 Brown University decision was a classic case of overreach by the board: It made the decision on knowledge of an educational relationship on which it had no expertise and no jurisdiction. The Bush board decision reversed a 2000 labor board decision in New York University (NYU) which stated that graduate student teaching and research were performing work and should be considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Brown decision reasoning refuted by actual experience. The Brown decision went against several decades of experience in public-sector collective bargaining. Over 60 major public sector universities now bargain with graduate student unions, including the University of California, University of Wisconsin, University of Massachusetts, Rutgers University, University of Oregon and others. The work performed by graduate student employees at these universities is no different from the work performed by graduate student employees at private universities such as Columbia, Brown and the New School.

Moreover, empirical studies of bargaining at public research universities have demonstrated that it has enhanced the educational experience of graduate students, not interfered with it. Graduate students have been able to bargain for better pay and benefits, and this has allowed them to devote more time to their research and teaching responsibilities. There is no reason to believe that the impact of collective bargaining at private universities would be any different from its positive impact at public universities.

Unionization will enhance the educational relationships. Empirical, peer-reviewed studies provide evidence that collective bargaining will likely enhance the educational process at private universities. A 2013 study of over 500 doctoral students at unionized and non-union public universities by scholars at Rutgers found that, at the unionized universities, "students reported better personal and professional support relationships with their primary advisors than were reported by their nonunion counterparts."

Another peer-reviewed study of almost 300 faculty members at major public universities with collective bargaining relationship with graduate student employees concluded that "based on their experiences, collective bargaining does not inhibit their ability to advise, instruct, or mentor their graduate students." Collective bargaining allows faculty to concentrate on the educational relationship while leaving employment issues to the university administration and the graduate employees' union.

As the dissent noted in the 2004 Brown decision, the clarification of roles and employment policies that goes along with collective bargaining at universities can "enhance mentoring relationships ... because of more clearly delineated expectations and enumeration of responsibilities between faculty and graduate students set forth in labor agreements."

Who opposes collective bargaining for graduate employees? Administrations at several Ivy League universities filed amicus briefs arguing that graduate students should not be allowed to form unions and engage in collective bargaining. This is hardly surprising. Like other anti-union employers, they want to retain unilateral control over the terms of conditions of work of their graduate school employees. In late April, graduate assistants at one university that had signed the amicus brief, Harvard, asked the administration to allow for a certification election after the American Arbitration Association confirmed that the union had majority support. Another amicus signatory, Columbia, provided graduate assistants with a significant pay increase last month before an expected union election.

Other groups that filed amicus briefs against restoring graduate students' right to form unions include groups that have sought to weaken unions in general. Again, not surprising. These groups do not want graduate students to have a positive experience with unionization and take that experience with them into the workforce when they complete their degrees. They understand that at public-sector universities, tens of thousands of graduate students have formed unions when given a free choice, and that their counterparts in private universities would likely make the same choice. The only consistent position taken by these groups is that they advocate for policies that weaken workers' right to bargain over wages and benefits.

Graduate employees want unions. When NYU voluntarily agreed to remain neutral and allow its graduate student employees to vote on unionization in 2013 in an election overseen by the American Arbitration Association, an overwhelming majority of them chose a union. Graduate student employees at NYU had previously voted for union representation in 2002, before the university administration refused to recognize the union in 2005 following the Bush labor board's Brown decision.

Ninety-eight percent of the graduate student employees who voted in the 2013 election chose union representation. These student employees now have a contract that provides for higher wages and better benefits. Moreover, about 1,500 research and teaching assistant employees now have a voice over their working conditions, rather than being subjected to unilateral control by the university administration.

The NYU process also provided a model for a successful organizing campaign among 2,300 graduate assistants at the University of Connecticut in 2014. After the NYU election, graduate student employees at Yale University, Columbia and the New School have continued to organize unions, long before the NLRB had ruled on whether or not to overturn the 2004 Brown decision.

The NLRB was correct to overrule the George W. Bush NLRB's misguided and partisan 2004 decision in Brown. Graduate student workers should be considered employees under the NLRA and enjoy the right to choose a union and bargain over wages and benefits. The right-wing groups that oppose this decision also oppose any policy that strengthens the right to choose a union and gain a voice at the workplace.

Logan is professor and director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University. While a graduate student at the University of California, he was a member of the Association of Graduate Student Employees-UAW (United Automobile Workers).

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