Students Or Employees?

Oct 25, 2012

The National Labor Relations Board is expected to issue a decision soon that could affect graduate teaching assistants and researchers at private colleges and universities in Connecticut, and nationwide. 

The question boils down to this: are graduate students who work as teaching assistants and researchers, employees or students?

In 2004, the NLRB ruled that they were students, so not eligible for collective bargaining rights. But President Obama has appointed three new NLRB members, seen by many as labor-friendly, and this board is revisiting that question in a petition submitted by New York University and the Polytechnic Institute of NYU.

US House Republicans held a hearing in Washington recently called: “The NLRB’s Growing Intrusion into Higher Education”. Here’s Tennessee Congressman Phil Roe. "We have learned the NLRB is utterly determined to advance a culture of union favoritism, regardless of the costs imposed on workers and employers or the damage inflicted on its own credibility."

Roe says granting graduate students the right to unionize could threaten academic freedom and raise the cost of tuition at private schools.

But supporters of collective bargaining rights say graduate students deserve a say on matters related to their working conditions like wages and benefits, or health and safety in labs.

Kate Irving is chair Yale University’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization or GESO. She says its not clear what will happen at Yale if the NLRB grants graduate students the right to organize. "GESO would certainly welcome that as granting us more legal options to formally press for recognition. I think to win a union there would need to be very broad consensus from graduate students that’s something that they wanted and there would need to be willingness from the university to be open to that."

A decision by the NLRB is expected in the coming weeks.