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Private universities will need to recognize graduate students who conduct research and help teach classes as employees and therefore accept the unions that they form, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday.

In a 3-1 decision, the board ruled that undergraduate and graduate student assistants and research assistants are statutory employees and are therefore covered by the National Labor Relations Act. The decision opens the door for the students and research assistants at private universities to band together to negotiate issues like pay, benefits, workload, and class size.

The decision came in response to a petition from graduate students at Columbia University and reversed a previous decision involving Brown University that found private universities are not required to recognize graduate student unions.


In the new decision, board members wrote that the Brown decision not only had an incorrect interpretation of the act, “but also because of the nature and consequences of that error.” The decision “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act,” the members wrote.

Ahead of the decision, graduate students had been running union drives and preparing for union elections at top institutions including Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, and the University of Chicago. The efforts ramped up after New York University became the first private university to voluntarily recognize its graduate student union in 2013.


Harvard, Stanford, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were among the universities that opposed the petition before the board, warning that giving graduate students collective bargaining rights could destroy the mentor-student relationship.

“While we are reviewing the ruling, Columbia — along with many of our peer institutions — 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,” Columbia said in a statement. “First and foremost, 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 non-academic third-party in this scholarly training.”

Universities have said that doctoral students were not employees because the research they conducted led them to their PhDs. Doctoral students often don’t pay tuition and in part do research and assist professors as part of the deal to get a degree tuition free.

The universities also argued that they could face disruptive grievances and years-long disputes over everything from graduate students having to grade essays, which students’ tuition got waived, and how many credits a student needed to become a teaching assistant.

In a statement Tuesday, Harvard said: “We continue to believe that the relationship between students and the University is primarily about education, and that unionization will disrupt academic programs and freedoms, mentoring, and research at Harvard.”

The university added: “If a petition for election is filed at some point by a union seeking to represent Harvard students, we would urge our students to get the facts, learn about the issues, understand the impact of unionization, and cast an informed vote. A labor union representing Harvard students will impact not only current students, but also faculty, staff, and future students.

The United Automobile Workers (which, despite its name, represents workers mostly from outside the auto industry nowadays) helped lead the union drive at institutions like Harvard. The union represents student unions at public institutions and NYU.

UAW officials said they hoped universities would not cause any further delay and that union elections could take place this fall.

Students involved said that unionizing would allow them to negotiate stable livable stipends instead of having to rely in part on grants.

Graduate students also said that they could be both students and employees. When they were doing their own research, they were students. But when they were teaching classes, they were employees.

Aaron Nisenson, senior counsel at the American Association of University Professors, said it will be interesting to see which issues any new unions prioritize. Some graduate students, he said, have said it is difficult to get the funding they need to teach a class, while others might want to establish rules regarding taking outside employment.

“What are the issues that they raise when they have the opportunity to do so collectively?” said Nisenson, whose organization supported the board decision.

Nisenson noted that, just as the Columbia decision reversed the Brown decision, a future decision from the board could change the landscape once again. That would of course depend on the views of the board members, who are appointed by the president.

Avery Davis, who is getting her PhD in human genetics at Harvard, said the decision amounted to “an affirmation of what we’ve known. … In addition to being grad students, we also do really valuable work for the university.”

She said that students who support forming a union will be reaching out to students just starting graduate school as the fall term starts and working on planning an election.

As for the university administration, she said, “We really hope that they all agree to be neutral in this and let graduate workers make their own decision.”

  • I thought higher education did away with this need to be protected by a union. I always thought moving to the Professional status somehow was reward for taking your education and career a step higher. Guess the term Professional in 2016 has changed. No entrepreneurs left in the world just workers wanting protection and no risk. Doesn’t that kill creativity when people are more concerned about their pension, their dental plan, short term disability for a broken nail? Soon American will have to look to other countries for creativity products.

    • Maybe your comment was tongue in cheek, Edith. But it came across as totally clueless. Nobody at the grocery store or the emergency room at the hospital or the dental office cares about someone’s “Professional status.” They just want you to pay for your food and your medical care, regardless of your work status. Unions, whether in academe or any other job, protect workers who otherwise would be unable to provide individually for these needs.

  • Grad students are often enough married and have family responsibilities. Many universities compete for the most promising of grad students who besides learning often serve as lab assistants along employee grad assistants, and teach alongside underpaid and numerous adjunct faculty. Part of the process now will be to sort out values of tuition waiver as well as fair compensation. It will be complicated and difficult for which expensive lawyers representing institutions will be paid handsomely.

  • Universities should then charge graduate students full cost of tuition – no exception and make the search for these positions an open posting that past graduates, graduates from other institutions, students at other institutions, etc can apply for. When a graduate student is faced with a $60,000 tuition bill, let’s see how the entitled, whining graduate students behave. When I did my graduate work and degree, the work I did for the university was part of my financial aid to cover a portion of my tuition. This is yet another example of the shining work ethic and appreciation of an over-indulged group of our society. It is no wonder they cannot succeed in the workforce as they forgot they have to earn what they get.

  • Funny that the institutions are talking about preserving the academic relationship of mentor and students, when thousands of these relationships are just an abuse of power by those that have it, with universities turning a blind eye. Also in cases of visa-holding scientists this abuse can extend from graduate students into post-doctoral scientist positions.

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