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NY Times article on unionizing graduate students

The article below is from NYTimes.com.
- Steve

Labor Board Says Graduate Students at Private Universities Have No Right to Unionize

July 16, 2004

The 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

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

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

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

"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

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

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

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

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."