Grad students at private universities can unionize, labor board rules

From The Wall Street Journal:

by Melanie Trottman

The National Labor Relations Board ruled that Columbia University graduate students are employees under federal labor law, paving the way for graduate students at private colleges nationwide to join labor unions.

The victory for the Columbia graduate students that petitioned to join a union could potentially deliver tens of thousands of membersto the nation’s struggling labor movement.

In a 3-1 decision announced Tuesday, the board of mostly Democrats said there is no clear language in the National Labor Relations Act that prohibits the teaching assistants from being afforded the protections of employees, including the right to unionize.

The students deserved such protections when “they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated,” the board’s majority said in its decision.

It will also pose a challenge for some of the nation’s most prestigious universities, which had warned a decision in favor of the students could disrupt colleges across the country by injecting collective bargaining into graduate programs.

The ruling reversed a 2004 decision involving Brown University, saying that decision “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act without a convincing jurisdiction.”

The NLRB oversees union-organizing elections and referees workplace disputes in most of the private sector. It doesn’t have jurisdiction in the public sector. A small portion of the roughly one million graduate students at public universities have been unionized for decades.

Labor groups have said the 2004 decision should be overturned because graduate students provide essential services for universities and should be able to be considered employees if they act, at least in part, to serve the employer.

The petition from the Columbia graduate students had drawn opposition from schools including Harvard University and Stanford University. In a joint legal brief, the schools had said collective bargaining in graduate programs could disrupt their ability to choose who would teach specific classes. The ruling could also cost schools millions of dollars in increased compensation.

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