HR Management & Compliance

How Does NLRB’s Ruling on Graduate Students Influence You?

Recently, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate student assistants are entitled to unionize at private colleges and universities. What impact does this have for the labor landscape in general?

By Tammy Binford

The National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) ruling that graduate student assistants at private colleges and universities are entitled to unionize is the latest Board action seen as a boon to union interests.

In a 3–1 decision issued on August 23, the Board ruled that graduate assistants at Columbia University are employees as well as students and may therefore be represented by a union. The ruling overturns the 2004 Brown University decision that determined that students working as teaching and research assistants should be considered students and not employees.

Although the case doesn’t directly affect employers other than private colleges and universities, it builds on union victories such as the NLRB’s new rule shortening the time employers have to counter union campaigns, dubbed the “quickie election” rule by its detractors.

Charles H. Kaplan, a member of Sills Cummis & Gross P.C. in New York City, says the Board’s three-member majority—Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce and members Kent Y. Hirozawa and Lauren McFerran—reasoned that just because graduate assistants are students doesn’t mean they are not employees as well.

Member Philip A. Miscimarra, the lone Republican on the Board, dissented, saying that in enacting the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), Congress didn’t intend that the Act and collective bargaining “would be the means by which students and their families might attempt to exercise control over” the “extraordinary expense” of higher education.

Kaplan says an eventual court challenge over the Columbia University ruling is likely.

The Columbia University ruling overturns the Brown University decision, which found that graduate student assistants weren’t employees within the meaning of Section 2(3) of the NLRA. The new decision “clears the way for the organization of doctoral candidates, graduate students, and undergraduates who work as teaching or research assistants at private colleges and universities,” according to Paul J. Sweeney, an attorney with Coughlin & Gerhart, LLP in Binghamton, New York. He adds that student assistants at public universities aren’t subject to the NLRA but have long been able to unionize under various state laws.

The Board’s majority opinion says the unionization of graduate students at public higher education institutions began in 1969 at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and “now encompasses universities in California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington.”

History of Decisions

NLRB’s new decision isn’t the first to say graduate assistants should be able to unionize. A timeline prepared by Inside Higher Ed cites a 2000 NLRB decision in which grad students at New York University (NYU) were deemed eligible to unionize. In 2002, NYU became the first private university to recognize a union.

In 2004, the Board reversed the 2000 ruling in the Brown University case. That led NYU to withdraw recognition of the union. Then, teaching assistants went on strike to get NYU to restore recognition, but that effort failed. The Brown University ruling held up under other challenges until the August 23 Columbia University decision.

Tomorrow we’ll look at what the decision might mean for everyday businesses.