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University files brief against grad student unionization

Nine private universities argue grad students’ relationships with schools educational, not economic

The University joined eight other private research universities Tuesday to file an amicus brief — a document by non-participating but interested parties — urging the National Labor Relations Board to continue recognizing graduate assistants as students rather than paid employees.

The NLRB is a federal agency that “protects the rights of most private-sector employees to join together, with or without a union, to improve their wages and working conditions,” according to the agency’s website.

The NLRB is considering a case in which the United Auto Workers Union seeks to unionize Columbia graduate assistants. The brief explains the UAW’s stance that in receiving compensation for performing services, graduate assistants “meet the definition of an ‘employee’” as “generally interpreted under the National Labor Relations Act.”

The amicus brief supports the 2004 Brown decision, which ruled that graduate teaching assistants are not employees and dismissed a petition by the UAW to unionize graduate students at the University.

“The majority in Brown correctly concluded that … the graduate assistants are students whose relationship with the University is primarily academic, not economic,” the brief states.

“The strong part of the brief is the argument that the circumstances that led to the decision of 2004 haven’t really changed in 2016,” said Provost Richard Locke P’17.

The schools — Brown, Yale, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Penn, Princeton and Stanford University — contend that “there are no facts or changed circumstances that justify revisiting, reversing or modifying Brown,” according to the brief. They refer to evidence from New York University — “the only record of private-sector experience bargaining with graduate assistants” — to claim that defining graduate assistants as employees with a right to unionize creates burdensome and disruptive effects on graduate education.

NYU separated student status from teaching status in 2009. Grievances filed prior to that decision continued to arbitration and are used in the brief as evidence of problems created by graduate assistant unionization.

While collective bargaining occurs at public universities, the brief argues that “there is a world of difference between public- and private-sector labor law.” Private institutions, like those who crafted the amicus brief, wish to preserve their academic autonomy and settle matters internally, the brief states.

“Both collective bargaining and arbitration are, by their very nature, adversarial. They clearly have the potential to transform the collaborative model of graduate education to one of conflict and tension,” the brief states.

There are also existing grievance procedures to settle differences between graduate assistants and faculty members, Locke said, adding that unionization would result in the establishment of a new set of processes.

“The relationship we have with (graduate teaching assistants) is one of teacher and student,” Locke said, adding that mentorship is the focus of graduate education.

“At Brown, we consider teaching to be an essential part of disciplinary training for graduate students, and the primary purpose of the experiences our graduate students have in the classroom is the furthering of their education,” wrote Cass Cliatt, vice president of communications, in an email to The Herald.

Whether or not the NLRB decides to strike down the 2004 Brown ruling, “it’s important for the University to respect the law of the land. If that law of the land changes because of the NLRB ruling, then the University will respect that change in the law,” Locke said.

Members of the University group Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees did not respond to a request for comment.


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