Labor board rules teaching assistants can unionize

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in a 3-1 vote ruled Tuesday that student teaching assistants at private universities may be allowed to unionize.

The Democratic-leaning NLRB reversed an earlier ruling that blocked Brown University graduate students from unionizing in a case that could have broader implications for students who attend private colleges.

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The NLRB was considering a case brought by group of teaching assistants at Columbia University. United Auto Workers representatives were working to unionize the teaching assistants at both the graduate and undergraduate level.

The board ruled that the students engaged in "instructional services" should be considered employees and given the opportunity to collectively bargain with their school. The students should be treated as employees “where they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated,” the NLRB ruled.

Student assistants are responsible for “significant portions of the overall teaching duties,” and they are often compensated for their efforts through tuition assistance, according to the board’s majority opinion.

"Teaching assistants frequently take on a role akin to that of faculty, the traditional purveyors of a university’s instructional output,” the board wrote. "The teaching assistants conduct lectures, grade exams, and lead discussions."

The NLRB's lone Republican dissented.

Republican board member Philip Miscimarra warned that “collective bargaining is likely to detract from the far more important goal of completing degree requirements.”

“For students enrolled in a college of university, their instruction-related positions do not turn the academic institution they attend into something that can fairly be characterized as a ‘workplace,’” Miscimarra said.

Tuesday's vote reverses an earlier 2004 decision involving Brown University. In that decision, the NLRB had ruled the graduate students could not unionize because they were students. Universities have argued that if students are allowed to unionize, it could negatively affect their education, given the relationship between students and universities.

The NLRB’s latest ruling applies to graduate and undergraduate students who are working for their universities, but not all students. 

The majority decision effectively states that at private universities, students in instructional services can be seen as both students and employees of the university. 

At public universities, some graduate students have already unionized under state laws that allow for unionization.

--This report was updated at 3:36 p.m.