Graduate Teaching Assistants Gain Right to Unionize

In an important new decision1, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that graduate teaching and research assistants may unionize under the protections granted by federal labor law. Reversing an earlier decision on this issue, the Board decided that graduate students at Columbia University who are paid for their services are “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act and may “form, join or assist” a labor organization. As a result, private colleges and universities may be legally required to bargain with graduate students over rates of pay and benefits, as well as courses, class size, methods of instruction and similar matters. Potentially, student assistants who unionize could go on strike.

The Board’s decision directly repudiates its 2004 decision in a case involving graduate teaching assistants at Brown University. The Brown University case, decided by the Bush-era Board, held that graduate teaching assistants were primarily students, rather than employees. Based on this reasoning, the Board had refused to extend organizational rights under federal labor law to the graduate students. The Bush Board relied, in part, on an earlier case which found that the relationship between graduate students and their mentors does not “squarely fit the industrial model.” In Brown University, the Board expressed concern that unionization would involve “significant risk…that the collective bargaining process will be detrimental to the educational process.”

The Board’s new decision holds that graduate teaching assistants are not deprived of their “employee” status under the law, because they also have the status of students. The Board could find nothing in the National Labor Relations Act to support the view that Congress intended to exclude graduate students from the right to form or join a union. The Board also noted that some 64,000 graduate students in public universities are currently unionized under state law. Experience in these public universities, the Board claimed, shows that universities are not compelled to surrender control of sensitive issues, such as class size, by virtue of participating in union negotiations.

The Board’s decision does not, of course, mandate that graduate teaching assistants join a union – it merely grants them the right to do so. Colleges and universities affected by the Columbia decision also have the right to oppose unionization by a host of legally-permissible means. The time to formulate a union avoidance strategy is before a petition for union representation is filed. Stevens & Lee lawyers and consultants are available to assist in formulating union avoidance strategies consistent with the culture of your institution.

For More Information

If you have any questions regarding this News Alert, please contact Blake C. Marles at 610.997.5060, Theresa M. Zechman at 717.399.6644, or the Stevens & Lee attorney with whom you normally consult.

This News Alert has been prepared for informational purposes only and should not be construed as, and does not constitute, legal advice on any specific matter. For more information, please see the disclaimer.

1 The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York and Graduate Workers of Columbia-GWC, UAW, 364 NLRB No. 90.