July 16, 2004
Labor Board Says Graduate Students at Private Universities Have No Right to Unionize
he fast-growing movement to unionize graduate students at the nation's private universities suffered a crushing setback yesterday when the National Labor Relations Board reversed itself and ruled that students who worked as research and teaching assistants did not have the right to unionize.
In a case involving Brown University, the labor board ruled 3 to 2 that graduate teaching and research assistants were essentially students, not workers, and thus should not have the right to unionize to negotiate over wages, benefits and other conditions of employment.
The Republican-controlled board reversed a four-year-old decision involving New York University, a private institution, in which the board, then controlled by Democrats, concluded that graduate teaching and research assistants should be able to unionize because their increased responsibilities had essentially turned them into workers.
As a result of the 2000 N.Y.U. ruling, students there formed the first graduate employees' union at a private university in the nation. (Graduate student workers at public universities are governed by state labor laws rather than federal law, and many states have given them the right to unionize.)
Sheldon E. Steinbach, vice president and general counsel for the American Council on Education, a trade group that represents universities and other educational institutions, called the ruling "magnificent" but said he was not surprised by it because of the labor board's changed lineup. The N.Y.U. decision was itself a reversal of the board's decades-old position that graduate assistants should not be able to unionize.
"The previous decision in the N.Y.U. case overturned over 30 years of determinations by the National Labor Relations Board on whether graduate students who worked as teaching and research assistants were students or employees," Mr. Steinbach said. "And it threatened the traditional relationship between colleges and their graduate student assistants."
But Edward J. McElroy, the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, who is set to be elected the union's president today, called the decision "outrageous."
"These people obviously are workers," Mr. McElroy said. "If members of the N.L.R.B. can't recognize a worker when they see one, they shouldn't be on a national labor board."
After the N.Y.U. decision, graduate teaching and research assistants at Brown, Columbia, Tufts and the University of Pennsylvania voted on whether they should unionize, but those universities appealed to the National Labor Relations Board. The votes were not counted while the cases were pending.
One of the board's five seats was vacant until last December, so it was effectively split and it postponed ruling on many issues, including this one. That left the unionization efforts in limbo.
Lauren Nauta, a graduate teaching assistant in history at the University of Pennsylvania, said many of her colleagues were fuming about the ruling. "We think it's an injustice that graduate employees at private universities have been denied the same right as those at public universities,'' she said. "This ruling shows the partisan nature of the N.L.R.B.''
It is unclear what yesterday's ruling will mean for the future of the graduate employees' union at N.Y.U., which now has a contract with the university. Once the current contract expires, labor experts said, the school may no longer be required to recognize the union or bargain with it.
N.Y.U. officials said yesterday that they were "gratified" by the labor board's decision, but declined to say whether they would continue to live with their graduate student union or end the relationship when the union contract expires next year.
The contract that N.Y.U. reached with the union representing its graduate student assistants in 2002 raised stipends for many of them by nearly 40 percent, provided health care benefits and paid them extra if they worked more than 20 hours a week.
In its decision, the labor board rejected a petition by the United Automobile Workers to represent 450 graduate students at Brown who served as teaching and research assistants.
The board noted that graduate students spend most of their energy and hours on their studies, rather than their work. Stating that the National Labor Relations Act was "designed to cover economic relationships," the majority concluded: "The Board's longstanding rule that it will not assert jurisdiction over relationships that are 'primarily educational' is consistent with these principles."
In conclusion, the board stated that "there is a significant risk, even a strong likelihood, that the collective-bargaining process will be detrimental to the educational process."
Philip Wheeler, the U.A.W.'s director for New York and New England, derided the labor board's logic.
"I understand that they say it would be too disruptive to the great American education system," Mr. Wheeler said. "Once upon a time, they said that unionizing would be too disruptive for American manufacturing. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now."