Board: Student Assistants Covered by the NLRA
August 23, 2016
3-1 Columbia Decision Overrules Brown University
Washington, D.C. — The National Labor Relations Board issued a 3-1 decision in Columbia University that student assistants working at private colleges and universities are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act. The Graduate Workers of Columbia-GWC, UAW filed an election petition seeking to represent both graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants, along with graduate and departmental research assistants at the university in December 2014. The majority reversed Brown University (342 NLRB 483) saying it “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act without a convincing justification.”
For 45 years, the National Labor Relations Board has exercised jurisdiction over private, nonprofit universities such as Columbia. In that time, the Board has had frequent cause to apply the Act to faculty in the university setting, which has been upheld by the Supreme Court.
Federal courts have made clear that the authority to define the term “employee” rests primarily with the Board absent an exception enumerated within the National Labor Relations Act. The Act contains no clear language prohibiting student assistants from its coverage. The majority found no compelling reason to exclude student assistants from the protections of the Act. (emphasis CJ's)The full decision is linked here. Here's Inside Higher Ed's Scott Jaschik on the decision:
Graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities are entitled to collective bargaining, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday. The NLRB said that a previous ruling by the board -- that these workers were not entitled to collective bargaining because they are students -- was flawed. The NLRB ruling, 3 to 1, came in a case involving a bid by the United Auto Workers to organize graduate students at Columbia University.
The decision reverses a 2004 decision -- which has been the governing one until today -- about a similar union drive at Brown University.
Many graduate students at public universities are already unionized, as their right to do so is covered by state law, not federal law.
The ruling largely rejects the fights of previous boards over whether teaching assistants should be seen primarily as students or employees. They can be both, the majority decision said.I'll be honest and say that I can't imagine that this will have much of an effect on things - someone still has to organize the union, and I can't imagine that graduate students will want to spend the time to make this happen. I just don't see an organized constituency that will want to go do the work, and that it will be sustained over the years. Nevertheless, there are a fair number of graduate student unions.
That said, it is interesting to me how, if you're a private university assistant professor, the cost of labor (graduate students and postdoctoral fellows) have gotten higher than it was 2 years ago.