It took two and a half years but, on the basis of yesterday’s ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (pdf), research and teaching assistants at Columbia University now have the right to form a union (as GWC-UAW Local 2110).
It comes as no surprise that Columbia’s administration opposed the ruling:
The university said in a statement Tuesday that it’s reviewing the ruling, but that it “disagrees with this outcome because we believe the academic relationship students have with faculty members and departments as part of their studies is not the same as between employer and employee.”
First and foremost, Columbia said, “students serving as research or teaching assistants come to Columbia to gain knowledge and expertise, and we believe there are legitimate concerns about the impact of involving a nonacademic third party in this scholarly training.”
And the consequences of the NLRB ruling extend far beyond Columbia:
NPR’s Yuki Noguchi reports that “only a small fraction of graduate students at public universities are currently represented by unions — but the decision governing private university students is expected to lead to unionization efforts that could organize tens of thousands more.”
The NLRB had long held that students who teach or research at a private university were not employees covered under the National Labor Relations Act, Yuki reports. That changed in 2000, when the board decided a case in favor of students, and changed again with another ruling four years later. Now the NLRB has reversed itself yet again.
In Tuesday’s decision, the board majority wrote that the 2004 ruling “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act, without a convincing justification in either the statutory language or the policies of the Act.”
Peter Salovey, president of Yale, said in a separate statement that the “mentorship and training that Yale professors provide to graduate students is essential to educating the next generation of leading scholars” and that he’d “long been concerned that this relationship would become less productive and rewarding under a formal collective bargaining regime, in which professors would be ‘supervisors’ of their graduate student ‘employees.’”
But the American Association of University Professors, which argued in an amicus brief in the Columbia case that collective bargaining can improve graduate students’ academic freedom, applauded the NLRB decision.
“This is a tremendous victory for student workers, and the AAUP stands ready to work with graduate employees to defend their rights, including rights to academic freedom and shared governance participation,” Howard Bunsis, chair of the association’s Collective Bargaining Congress and a professor of accounting at Eastern Michigan University, said in a statement. “Graduate employees deserve a seat at the table and a voice in higher education.”