The National Labor Relations Board ruled yesterday that graduate students employed as teachers and research assistants at Columbia University have the right to form a union. The ruling overturns more than a decade of labor precedent and is likely to have wide-ranging implications for private universities around the country.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, graduate student workers at private universities around the country had demanded the right to collectively bargain for contracts with university administrations. Those efforts came to a screeching halt in 2004, when the National Labor Relations Board, the government agency tasked with overseeing labor organizing, ruled that graduate employees’ relationship with their universities is primarily as students, and that for this reason they did not enjoy the rights of employees.
For twelve years, that decision, made by a board dominated by appointees of George W. Bush, has been the law of the land, though graduate employees at public universities, whose rights are protected by state law, could organize. In 2013, New York University, a private institution, opted to voluntarily recognize its graduate workers union. (Full disclosure: As a Village Voice staffer, I’m a member of the United Auto Workers 2110, which represents the NYU graduate students and which supported the Columbia graduate workers throughout their organizing efforts and appeals to the labor board.) NYU was in an unusual situation, however, fighting multi-front wars against unionizing grad students, overburdened adjunct faculty, gouged students, and hostile neighbors angry at its expansion. This exception notwithstanding, graduate organizing at private universities was dead in the water.
But the NLRB is composed of presidential appointments, and while the board that handed down the 2004 decision was dominated by Republican appointees, the current one is stacked with Obama appointees more friendly to workers’ right to collective bargaining. Despite amicus briefs filed by other Ivy League institutions arguing that allowing graduate workers to collectively bargain would damage the educational process, the board opted to reverse its prior decision, rejecting its old reasoning decisively: “Student assistants who perform work at the direction of their university for which they are compensated are statutory employees,” the ruling declares.
The response from graduate organizers was jubilant. “We’re so thrilled to see that two and a half years of organizing has paved the way for union representation,” said Paul Katz, a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American history at Columbia, yesterday. “When I’m working on my own research, I’m clearly a student. But when I’m at the front of the room, teaching fifteen students about, let’s say, the history of ancient Greece, a topic completely removed from my own research, when I’m grading their papers, when I’m providing them with guidance, there’s no doubt that in that capacity, I am a worker, doing the sort of work that makes Columbia University great.”
Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia, said he was pleased with the ruling as well. “It’s part of our democracy that workers have the right to engage in collective bargaining if they wish to, through a union,” Foner said. “I have always found it disconcerting that the Columbia administration, like the administration of many other private universities, has fought so hard to prevent the unionization of these workers.”
In a statement released yesterday, the Columbia administration said that it disagreed with the ruling. “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. 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.”
The national board ruling leaves unresolved the question of which graduate students will qualify to vote in the election necessary to bring about a union at Columbia, but graduate organizers say that as soon as the local board resolves that issue, they’re eager to begin campaigning, and hope to hold a vote on whether to unionize as soon as possible.