The National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that graduate students in private universities can unionize under federal law. The 3-1 vote overturns a 2004 decision barring graduate student workers from unionizing.
The now-majority Democratic board found that the previous decision, made by a majority Republican body, did not hold up, arguing that graduate students should be seen as employees of the universities in which they teach seeing as though the institutions pay them for their work and have control over them as employers.
The current board also pushed back on the argument that graduate student unionization "would harm the faculty-student relationship" or "would diminish academic freedom," saying there is no empirical evidence for such an assertion.
"In sum," the board wrote, "there is no compelling reason--in theory or in practice--to conclude that collective bargaining by student assistants cannot be viable or that it would seriously interfere with higher education."
University of Chicago doctoral student Abhishek Bhattacharyya voiced his appreciation for the plaintiffs in the case.
"Congratulations to our comrades at Columbia and the New School for taking the fight to the NLRB," he said in a statement. "This favorable verdict is a big shot in the arm for the union we have built over these last nine years at U of C, giving graduate students another powerful tool for improving our working lives. We remain committed to building a robust, inclusive and democratic union, working alongside teachers in the city, activists in Southside Chicago, and others looking to change the way things work."
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten applauded the NLRB's decision:
This is a great day for workers. 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 National Labor Relations Board took a hard look at the flawed reasoning in Brown and concluded, rightly, that grads should be afforded exactly the same workplace rights as their colleagues.
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. 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 real 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.