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Graduate assistants at private universities can unionize

In a decision that could reshape working and learning conditions for thousands of college workers and their students, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that graduate assistants have the right to unionize, even at private colleges. They are "employees," and their student designation does not preclude their right to form a union.

Cornell grad studentsThe 3-1 decision came in response to a petition filed by the Graduate Workers of Columbia. It overturns a 2004 decision, Brown University, that labeled graduate assistants as primarily students and therefore ineligible to organize as workers. Revisiting that case, the NLRB wrote that it "deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the [National Labor Relations] Act without convincing justification."

"This is a great day for workers," says AFT President Randi Weingarten. "Graduate employees at private institutions, just like their peers in public universities across the country, deserve the right to organize to have a real say over their wages and conditions."

The AFT is the oldest national graduate employee union, representing 25,000 graduate workers on 22 campuses across nine states at more than 20 public colleges and universities. That experience informed the AFT's amicus brief supporting the Columbia grad students; the NLRB cited it as proof that graduate worker unions work. The AFT has shown that universities can successfully straddle their "dual role as educator and employer," the NLRB noted, and that "meaningful bargaining" is possible even when the duration of employment is limited.

The history of the Columbia decision, which was announced Aug. 23 and also covers undergraduate assistants, is a bit of a ping-pong match. First, in 2000, the NLRB ruled in favor of unions for working students, in a case involving New York University. Then it ruled against them, with Brown. Now it's back to the original decision: Unions win.

This final decision will immediately affect two locals affiliated with the AFT—Cornell Graduate Students United, which affiliated with the AFT in October 2015, and Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago, an 11-year-old union that has been affiliated with the AFT and the American Association of University Professors since 2010. Many more graduate workers are expected to follow their lead. Others may affiliate with other unions, including the United Auto Workers, which represents graduate workers at NYU and Columbia.

"Grads at private schools across New York state are coming together so their voices can be heard, and we're behind them every step of the way," says New York State United Teachers President Karen Magee, who is an AFT vice president.

Cornell grad studentThe AFT's graduate worker unions already address a host of issues important to their members, whether they are at public or private institutions. Among them: lab safety for research assistants, affordable child care, summer funding, access to health insurance, reasonable work hours, fair sick leave, and due process for when they are disciplined or released from their jobs. These provisions are important not only to graduate workers themselves, but to campus communities: Teaching assistants make up 20 percent of instructional staff, according to the Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, and far more at some institutions. Their work—lesson planning, teaching, grading and holding office hours, among other things—is essential to campus life.

"The truth is graduate workers are the glue that holds higher education institutions together—without their labor, classes wouldn't get taught, exams wouldn't get graded and office hours wouldn't be held," says Weingarten. "The evidence considered by the board clearly showed that far from being detrimental, collective representation enhances the professor-graduate employee relationship so important to academic success.

"At Columbia, Cornell, Chicago, Brown and hundreds of other campuses, graduate employees are standing up to have a say over their work lives; this board decision recognizes and validates their fight to win a meaningful seat at the bargaining table and for the fruits of those negotiations to be protected by law."

[Virginia Myers, AFT media affairs]