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Private College Grad Assistants Can Now Unionize Thanks to a New Landmark Labor Ruling

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Columbia University campus in New York.Photograph by Mario Tama—Getty Images

Private university grad assistants are employees too, and they should have the right to unionize, the National Labor Relations Board ruled yesterday.

The independent federal agency, which serves as a watchdog for private employee labor rights, decided on a case involving Ivy League grad students and higher ed trustees at Columbia University in New York. NLRB Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce and a majority of board members determined the petitioning students fit the definition of “statutory employees” defined by a portion of the National Labor Relations Act and therefore should be afforded the right to form their own union, according to board documents.

“It seems clear to us,” the members wrote in their majority opinion, “that the [National Labor Relations Act’s] text supports the conclusion that student assistants who are common-law employees are covered by the Act, unless compelling statutory and policy considerations require an exception.”

The current four-person board includes three Democrats and one Republican, who was the lone dissenter on the ruling, board documents reveal.


Their decision overturned a 2004 ruling involving Brown University that determined grad students were not employees, which the current members noted was a “sharply-divided decision.”

“The [previous] Board majority held that these individuals were not ’employees,’ based on the conclusion that ‘graduate student assistants… have a predominately academic, rather than economic, relationship with their school,” the current members wrote. “[It] deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the [National Labor Relations Act], without a convincing justification.”

One of the grad students involved in Columbia’s efforts to unionize told the New York Times their efforts weren’t about earning bigger paychecks.

“It’s a question of power and democracy in a space in the academy that’s increasingly corporatized, hierarchical,” Paul R. Katz told the Times.

Also at issue in the case was the vested risk grad students face in attending college, levying the increasing cost of earning a degree and the often resulting burden of student loan debt with the prospects of a higher-earning career path and increased quality of life.

Dissenters expressed concern the ruling could allow grad assistants to influence academic issues like class size and length, as well as the format of classes and exams, the Times reports.