Law and Politics

Labor Board Recognizes Right of Private University Graduate Assistants to Unionize

August 25, 2016 

Larry Cary


By Larry Cary

On Tuesday, the National Labor Relations Board issued its long awaited decision in Columbia University and held that “student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees under the Act.” 

The Board’s majority went on to say, the NLRB would “apply that standard to student assistants, including assistants engaged in research funded by external grants.”

In so doing, the Board overruled its 2004 decision in Brown University which disqualified graduate assistants from having the right to unionize because it considered them to be students not employees.  Very often graduate assistantships are awarded promising students in order to permit them economically to continue their education.  They are usually required to teach or in other ways support the work of a professor or department.

And, in so doing, the Board returned to the standard, first articulated in its 2000 decision in New York University, that being both a student and an employee did not deprive the graduate assistant of his or her rights under the labor law to organize.
Once again, the members of the Labor Board appointed by President Obama have shown that they are dedicated to returning to the original purpose of the law which is to permit employees to form, join or assist labor organizations.  In so doing, the decision cites the fact that 64,000 graduate students at 28 universities regulated by state labor relations laws are represented for collective bargaining by a union.  NYU is the sole private sector university to have continued to voluntarily recognize its graduate assistants’ union after the Board changed its mind in Brown and deprived these workers of the protections of federal labor law.

August 24, 2016

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