• July 31, 2014

NLRB Will Revisit Issue of Graduate Students' Right to Unionize

The National Labor Relations Board says it will review its 2004 ruling that prohibits graduate-student assistants at private universities from unionizing.

The board voted 3 to 1 on Friday to review that ruling by granting a review of two new cases, involving unionization efforts at New York University and the Polytechnic Institute of New York University.

The vote comes two years after NYU graduate students submitted a petition to the NLRB for an election to vote on union representation.

The board is asking interested parties to submit briefs, by July 23, to respond to key issues in the cases. It seeks comments on whether it should modify or overrule its 2004 decision involving Brown University, which held that graduate-student assistants who perform services in connection with their studies are not employees, because they "have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university."

If the board rules that graduate students are employees, it wants the parties to spell out how graduate students would qualify for collective-bargaining rights and what their appropriate bargaining unit should be.

"We're excited that the board has taken up our case and there is movement on it," says Matt C. Canfield, a doctoral candidate in the anthropology department at NYU and an organizer with the Graduate Organizing Committee. "We've been waiting for a while for a decision from the NLRB to demonstrate our majority and vote in an election for a union."

In 2001, NYU became the first private university in the country to recognize a graduate-employee union. But when the union's contract expired, in 2005, the university refused to renew it, on the basis of the NLRB's 2004 decision.

Since then, Mr. Canfield says, graduate students at NYU have kept pressure on the university and the NLRB to restore their collective-bargaining rights.

"This case is so key for organizing graduate workers at private universities," he says. "It's a right that already exists for graduate students at public universities. We're hoping for the same rights and entitlements."

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