HR Policies & Procedures

How the NLRB Graduate Student Ruling Affects You

Yesterday we looked at the recent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling concerning graduate students being entitled to unionize at colleges and universities. Today we’ll see what impact that has on other businesses.

By Tammy Binford

Significance of Decision

As to what the Columbia University decision means to employers that aren’t private colleges and universities, Attorney Paul J. Sweeney says it “represents a continuation of the erosion of decades-old NLRB precedent.”

“Given that the bargaining unit may include doctoral candidates and undergraduates alike, the decision further eviscerates the requirement that a bargaining unit have a ‘community of interest,’” Sweeney says. “Similar to NLRB decisions allowing for the organization of microunits, the Columbia University decision allows for the organization of student-employees who may not share any common economic interests with other employees or who may be truly ‘temporary’ workers normally excluded from inclusion in a bargaining unit.”

Organizing graduate assistants and adjunct faculty has been “a major goal of the academic labor movement” in recent years, Charles H. Kaplan says. In a number of private universities, unions can’t organize professors because many of them play a management role in the schools and therefore aren’t eligible for union membership, but graduate assistants and adjunct faculty present no such impediment.

In July, Columbia University announced a pay increase for its graduate assistants, but both Kaplan and Sweeney say that may not be enough to prevent unionization. Student assistants might think a collective voice can get them an even better deal and therefore vote to unionize, Kaplan says. Sweeney points out that a transient bargaining unit made up of students with a high student debt load may think better working conditions or more tuition relief could come from belonging to a union.

Sweeney also says teaching and research assistants at other private universities, particularly larger schools, will seek to organize for the same reasons the Columbia University student-employees cite.

“As such, and given the NLRB’s ‘quickie election’ rules, prudent private colleges and universities should consider mounting educational campaigns prior to the onset of organizational efforts by unions or interested students and making contingent plans to prevent disruptions during the academic year,” Sweeney says. “Moreover, these same employers should be wary of taking any actions against teaching and research assistants [that] union organizers will claim amount to an unfair labor practice.”

Sweeney advises private colleges and universities to consult with labor counsel in light of the new NLRB decision.