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Grad students at private universities win right to unionize

National Labor Relations Board decision about Columbia students overturns 2004 decision about Brown students

Updated Aug. 24 at 10 p.m. 

The National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that graduate students at Columbia qualify as employees of the institution and therefore have the right to unionize.

“It’s definitely a celebration,” said Anne Gray Fischer GS and member of Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees. “It’s the first win that we needed before we move onto the next win, which is unionization.”

The University released a statement in response to the ruling affirming that the administration “will comply with this decision and support graduate students as they consider whether or not it is in their best interest to choose, or not, to form a union and bargain collectively.”

But SUGSE members are already “in the process” of deciding which union to affiliate with, Gray Fischer said, adding that “affiliation will be one of our top priorities for fall semester."

Members of the student advocacy group have been in conversation with various graduate students this summer, both at Brown and on other campuses, in anticipation of the NLRB decision, which was slated to arrive in late summer.

The 3-1 ruling comes more than a decade after a 2004 NLRB decision regarding Brown, which determined that graduate students — as students rather than employees — did not possess the right to unionize.  

This decision sets the precedent that graduate students in research or teaching capacities at private universities should be able to form and join unions and collectively bargain with university administrations.

The University joined eight other private universities in filing an amicus brief in March, pressing the NLRB to maintain its 2004 ruling that denies graduate students the rights of employees, The Herald reported.

Ruling this time in favor of graduate students, the NLRB now deems the constituency to be protected by the National Labor Relations Act. Tuesday’s decision states that the board’s former ruling regarding Brown “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act, without a convincing justification in either the statutory language or the policies of the Act.”

“Graduate student labor provides the intellectual and educational engine that keeps the University running,” Gray Fischer said. “Brown works because we do.”

The reversal of the 2004 ruling comes from the NLRB’s current majority-Democrat members, the Wall Street Journal reported. The current board was appointed by President Barack Obama, while the previous decision was reached by a Bush-appointed Board.

“It’s a different historical moment than it was 10 or 15 years ago,” Gray Fischer said. “More and more people are fighting against the market-driven model of the University and instead pushing the University to become a place that recognizes and supports the working people who sustain it.”

Graduate students at public universities are protected by state labor laws, and this new ruling allows graduate students at private universities to join them, the Chicago Tribune reported.



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