By Evan Henerson
Major congrats and champagne toasts go out to graduate students at Columbia University and across the country in the wake of the National Labor Relations Board decision that gives grad students the right to union representation.
More than 10,000 students at universities across the country are likely to reap the benefits of the NLRB’s ruling this week that grad students are covered by the National Labor Relations Act. Basically, the ruling recognizes that graduate students who work as teaching or research assistants are considered as employees, not merely students and can therefore join collective bargaining units. The NLRB’s decision – which reverses a 2004 NLRB ruling - comes in response to a petition filed by a group of graduate students at Columbia University and the United Autoworkers Union.
In 2004, the NLRB argued that graduate students "are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.” This board disagrees. The change of course makes sense. Graduate students perform work and are paid accordingly. And they enhance the quality of their workplace. As a recap on the UAW’s website notes, at least half of all teachers on college campuses are non-tenure track and include graduate teaching assistants. Graduate workers at Columbia also help bring in nearly $1 billion annually in grants and contracts.
Therefore these employees should be entitled to negotiate for stable working conditions, reliable health benefits, access to paid parental leave, pay raises, and many other rights that unionized teachers enjoy.
The NLRB has gone back and forth on this one several times. It looks like the board finally took a page out of the student handbook and learned the correct lesson in fairness.