Labor Board Ruling Could Allow Grad Students to Unionize

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From The Wall Street Journal:

by Melanie Trottman and Douglas Belkin

When Paul Katz, a fourth-year graduate student at Columbia University, is researching primary texts in the library, he considers himself a student. But when he is grading undergraduate papers or lecturing to students, he sees himself as an employee who should have the right to join a union.

The National Labor Relations Board is expected to decide on his status this summer in a ruling that could pave the way for graduate students at private schools across the country to unionize.

A victory for Mr. Katz would deliver tens of thousands of young, educated potential members to the ailing labor movement—and a giant headache to some of the most prestigious universities in the country.

“This is about our basic status here,” said Mr. Katz, one of about 2,000 Columbia graduate students who signed a petition to unionize. “We are entitled to the protections that come with membership to a union.”

The petition has drawn sharp opposition from some of the preeminent private universities around the nation, including Harvard University, Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a joint legal brief, the schools said injecting collective bargaining into graduate programs could disrupt their ability to choose who would teach specific classes because the choice could be subject to union rules. The ruling could also cost schools millions of dollars in increased compensation.

“The worry is less about compensation benefits and economic issues and more about work-rule issues,” said Peter McDonough, a former general counsel of Princeton University who is vice president and general counsel for the American Council on Education, a trade group for college and university presidents.

University administrators’ main argument is that although most graduate students get financial support from their school, which can include grants covering tuition, health-care coverage, and stipends for living expenses, they aren’t working a trade for wages but are instead getting an education in preparation for a career.

“Graduate students are doing this as part and parcel of their curriculum,” said Joseph Ambash, a lawyer in Boston for Fisher & Phillips LLP, who helped write the brief the universities filed. “Universities don’t function like a simple workplace."

At Princeton, the school’s relationship with its graduate students is “driven by educational considerations, not economic” ones, said Daniel Day, an assistant vice president at the school. “Our graduate students teach and conduct research as part of their education—they are our students, not our employees.”

The National Labor Relations Board has flip-flopped on its categorization of the roughly 535,000 graduate students now enrolled at private colleges. For decades, it held they weren’t employees, then in 2000 declared they were. In 2004, the board reversed itself in a case involving Brown University. 

Since most of the current board members are Democrats appointed by President Barack Obama, observers expect the board is more likely to side with the students and the union.

Read more from The Wall Street Journal.