National Labor Board: Graduate Student Labor Unions Legal at Private Colleges and Universities

The National Labor Relations Board ruled yesterday that graduate student unions must be recognized as collective bargaining units that are legally entitled to negotiate on behalf of graduate students at private colleges and universities.

Graduate student instructors and research assistants at private universities are employees as defined by the National Labor Relations Act, the board decided in a 34-page ruling.

The federal labor board’s 3-to-1 ruling regarding graduate student workers at Columbia University overturned a 2004 decision involving Brown University. In that decision, the board ruled that treating graduate student workers as employees would intrude on the educational process.

In the decision yesterday, the board said such a belief  “is unsupported by legal authority, by empirical evidence, or by the board’s actual experience.” The board also overturned a 1974 ruling that had declared research assistants at Stanford University ineligible to unionize based on the belief that such research is part of the educational process.

Princeton University, which does not have a graduate student union, is one of nine private universities that filed an amicus brief in the Columbia University case opposing the unionization. The schools argued that the relationship between graduate students and private universities should be defined as strictly academic. The schools argued that a reversal of the Brown decision would “significantly damage private sector graduate education in this country and will represent an inappropriate intrusion into long-protected areas of academic freedom and autonomy.”

The schools also argued that the market value of teaching services provided by doctoral candidates is not taken into consideration when determining stipends provided to graduate student who teach, and therefore collective bargaining could not be imposed on the relationship “without doing irreparable damage.” Collective bargaining, the schools said, would compromise academic freedom and result in “disputes, litigation, and perhaps strikes such as those which have frequently occurred at public universities.”

The board rejected such arguments yesterday.

“Our starting point in determining whether student assistants are covered by the act is the broad language…which provides in relevant part that…the term ‘employee’ shall include any employee, subject to certain exceptions,” reads the board decision. “The Brown University board held that graduate assistants cannot be statutory employees because they`are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.’ We disagree.”

The board ruled that it has the authority to treat student assistants as statutory employees when they perform work at the direction of the university for which they are paid. “Statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the act does not reach,” reads the decision.

Columbia University issued a statement about the decision, saying the school believes the academic relationship students have with faculty members and departments as part of their studies is not the same as the relationship between an employer and an employee.

Graduate students argue that they are employees and should be afforded the same rights. Students at many schools say they are not paid enough to support themselves or their families. More universities are saving money by using adjuncts and graduate students to teach students rather than hiring full-time professors to teach.


  1. The right wingers always say (when scolding minimum wage earners) get an education so you can get better pay. Grad students and adjunct professors did get an education but still are paid Walmart wages. Thus the need for union representation.

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