"paid teaching assistants not employees" says Bush appointees
The 3 republican appointees to the 5 member national labor relations board recently concluded that graduate teaching and research assistants at all private universities are somehow blanketly not employees. This reverses a unanimous decision by the board that previously held that graduate teaching and research assistants at (private) NYU WERE employees and thus COULD form a union.
Labor Board Says Graduate Students at Private Universities Have No Right to
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE and KAREN W. ARENSON
The fast-growing movement to unionize graduate students at
the nation's private universities suffered a crushing
setback yesterday when the National Labor Relations Board
reversed itself and ruled that students who worked as
research and teaching assistants did not have the right to
In a case involving Brown University, the labor board ruled
3 to 2 that graduate teaching and research assistants were
essentially students, not workers, and thus should not have
the right to unionize to negotiate over wages, benefits and
other conditions of employment.
The Republican-controlled board reversed a four-year-old
decision involving New York University, a private
institution, in which the board, then controlled by
Democrats, concluded that graduate teaching and research
assistants should be able to unionize because their
increased responsibilities had essentially turned them into
As a result of the 2000 N.Y.U. ruling, students there
formed the first graduate employees' union at a private
university in the nation. (Graduate student workers at
public universities are governed by state labor laws rather
than federal law, and many states have given them the right
Sheldon E. Steinbach, vice president and general counsel
for the American Council on Education, a trade group that
represents universities and other educational institutions,
called the ruling "magnificent" but said he was not
surprised by it because of the labor board's changed
lineup. The N.Y.U. decision was itself a reversal of the
board's decades-old position that graduate assistants
should not be able to unionize.
"The previous decision in the N.Y.U. case overturned over
30 years of determinations by the National Labor Relations
Board on whether graduate students who worked as teaching
and research assistants were students or employees," Mr.
Steinbach said. "And it threatened the traditional
relationship between colleges and their graduate student
But Edward J. McElroy, the secretary-treasurer of the
American Federation of Teachers, who is set to be elected
the union's president today, called the decision
"These people obviously are workers," Mr. McElroy said. "If
members of the N.L.R.B. can't recognize a worker when they
see one, they shouldn't be on a national labor board."
After the N.Y.U. decision, graduate teaching and research
assistants at Brown, Columbia, Tufts and the University of
Pennsylvania voted on whether they should unionize, but
those universities appealed to the National Labor Relations
Board. The votes were not counted while the cases were
One of the board's five seats was vacant until last
December, so it was effectively split and it postponed
ruling on many issues, including this one. That left the
unionization efforts in limbo.
Lauren Nauta, a graduate teaching assistant in history at
the University of Pennsylvania, said many of her colleagues
were fuming about the ruling. "We think it's an injustice
that graduate employees at private universities have been
denied the same right as those at public universities,''
she said. "This ruling shows the partisan nature of the
It is unclear what yesterday's ruling will mean for the
future of the graduate employees' union at N.Y.U., which
now has a contract with the university. Once the current
contract expires, labor experts said, the school may no
longer be required to recognize the union or bargain with
N.Y.U. officials said yesterday that they were "gratified"
by the labor board's decision, but declined to say whether
they would continue to live with their graduate student
union or end the relationship when the union contract
expires next year.
The contract that N.Y.U. reached with the union
representing its graduate student assistants in 2002 raised
stipends for many of them by nearly 40 percent, provided
health care benefits and paid them extra if they worked
more than 20 hours a week.
In its decision, the labor board rejected a petition by the
United Automobile Workers to represent 450 graduate
students at Brown who served as teaching and research
The board noted that graduate students spend most of their
energy and hours on their studies, rather than their work.
Stating that the National Labor Relations Act was "designed
to cover economic relationships," the majority concluded:
"The Board's longstanding rule that it will not assert
jurisdiction over relationships that are 'primarily
educational' is consistent with these principles."
In conclusion, the board stated that "there is a
significant risk, even a strong likelihood, that the
collective-bargaining process will be detrimental to the
Philip Wheeler, the U.A.W.'s director for New York and New
England, derided the labor board's logic.
"I understand that they say it would be too disruptive to
the great American education system," Mr. Wheeler said.
"Once upon a time, they said that unionizing would be too
disruptive for American manufacturing. They were wrong
then, and they are wrong now."
The New York Times
July 16, 2004
Board Overturns TAs Union Membership
By LEIGH STROPE
Associated Press Writer
July 15, 2004, 3:57 PM EDT
WASHINGTON -- Graduate teaching assistants at private universities do not have the right to form unions, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled, reversing its 2000 landmark decision that resulted in thousands of new union members.
The board, in a 3-2 decision along party lines, ruled that a unit of about 450 graduate teaching and research assistants at Brown University in Providence, R.I., could not be represented by the United Auto Workers because the members were school students, not employees.
"Because they are first and foremost students, and their status as a graduate student assistant is contingent on their continued enrollment as students, we find that they are primarily students," the decision said.
Brown University did not immediately have a comment. A UAW official in Washington was unaware the decision had been made, but said the union disagreed. "We strongly disagree with it and we think it reflects this administration's anti-labor orientation," said Alan Reuther, the union's legislative director.
Organized labor had sought and won the 2000 decision by the NLRB under the Clinton administration, allowing graduate teaching assistants at New York University to unionize. It was the first private school to do so.
The NLRB under the Bush administration said that decision was wrong because it reversed more than 25 years of board precedent.
"In our decision today, we return to the board's pre-NYU precedent that graduate student assistants are not statutory employees," the decision said, adding that this "longstanding approach changed abruptly" under the 2000 ruling.
The decision was sent to the involved parties on Tuesday.
Unions have been active on college campuses trying to recharge the labor movement. Union membership has been declining, and labor leaders view recruitment of younger, part-time workers as a way to reverse that trend. The UAW and the American Federation of Teachers are the leading unions courting graduate teaching assistants.
Some state-supported schools allow graduate teaching assistants to unionize and some don't depending on various state laws.
From the journal for college adminstrators:
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Friday, July 16, 2004
Labor Board Rules Against TA Unions at Private Universities
By SCOTT SMALLWOOD
Graduate students at private universities do not have the right to form
labor unions, the National Labor Relations Board ruled on Thursday, striking
down its own landmark 2000 ruling that had led to a wave of organizing.
The long-awaited decision was split along party lines, with members of the
board ruling, 3 to 2, that teaching assistants at Brown University are
primarily students and are not covered by federal labor law. The United
Automobile Workers had organized graduate students at Brown in 2001 and had
successfully petitioned for a union election. Those ballots were impounded
when the university appealed to the NLRB, and have remained uncounted ever
In 2000 the board, then controlled by Democratic appointees, ruled that
graduate students at New York University could unionize, prompting
organizing drives across the nation that signed up thousands of graduate
students over the last four years. That work is now undone by the board's
In the Brown case, the three Republican members appointed by President Bush
ruled that the precedent before the NYU ruling was "sound and well
"Graduate-student assistants, including those at Brown, are primarily
students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with
their university," the majority wrote. They further found that since the
money received by teaching assistants is the same as that received by
students on fellowships, it is not "consideration for work" but financial
The two Democratic members dissented, arguing that the majority was
"woefully out of touch with contemporary academic reality" and that their
decision was based on an outdated view of academe.
Brown's provost, Robert J. Zimmer, said in a written statement that the
board "correctly recognizes that a graduate student's experience is a
mentoring relationship between faculty and students and is not an
appropriate matter for collective bargaining."
Phil Wheeler, a regional director of the United Automobile Workers, called
the decision a blatantly political ruling and said it was disappointing that
supposedly progressive universities had appealed the case to an "anti-union
Derailing Drives to Organize
Teaching assistants at some public universities have been unionized for
decades, although the movement has gained momentum in recent years with
victories at large institutions, including the University of California.
Just this week, graduate students at the University of Illinois, who had
been fighting for a union for more than 10 years, reached their first
contract deal. State labor law governs those contracts.
In contrast, federal labor law had precluded such union drives at private
institutions for years. The NYU ruling in 2000 prompted a series of
organizing efforts at Brown, Columbia, and Tufts Universities, as well as at
the University of Pennsylvania.
The universities fought those drives, though regional officials of the NLRB
ruled that union elections could be held. Each of those decisions was
appealed to the full labor board in Washington. The Brown ruling is the
first to be issued, but decisions in the other cases are expected soon.
The Brown ruling may derail nascent organizing drives for TA unions at
George Washington University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the
University of Southern California.
The board generally agreed with the arguments university administrators have
made over the years: that teaching and research assistants are students, not
employees, and that allowing them to unionize would hurt the academic
relationship. The majority wrote: "Imposing collective bargaining would have
a deleterious impact on overall educational decisions by the Brown faculty
While acknowledging that graduate students at some public universities are
unionized, the majority wrote: "Our decision does not turn on whether our
nation's universities are ivory towers or sweatshops. ... Rather, our
decision turns on our fundamental belief that the imposition of collective
bargaining on graduate students would improperly intrude into the
In their dissent, the Democratic members of the NLRB contended that graduate
students would continue to try to organize unions, and that the board should
therefore apply the federal law to encourage collective bargaining and avoid
labor disputes. "Even those who live the life of the mind must eat," they
Dismay and Delight
As word of the decision spread, the American Federation of Teachers was
holding its annual convention in Washington. Minutes after learning of the
decision, Nat LaCour, the executive vice president, told members: "The
ruling is outrageous. This must change."
A spokeswoman at Columbia University said the institution would not comment
on the ruling since it did not directly involve Columbia.
Lori Doyle, a spokeswoman for Penn, said administrators there are
"delighted" by the ruling. "We are pleased that the NLRB has recognized what
we've been saying all along: that graduate students are students, not
employees," she said. After quickly reviewing the decision, lawyers there
said they expect to see a ruling soon on their case that would be consistent
with the Brown decision.
Union leaders were holding out a sliver of hope, though. While acknowledging
that the decision was a "major blow," Lauren Nauta, the Penn union's
organizing chairwoman, said leaders of her group believe their case is
different enough from the one at Brown that the NLRB's ruling could be
Ms. Nauta, a Ph.D. candidate in history, said students at Penn were outraged
by the decision and what they see as its political aspect. "Basically this
comes down to Bush's Republican appointees overturning the NYU precedent,"
she said. "It's very unclear what the distinction between graduate students
at a public university and a private university would be. We feel that we're
employees, we pay taxes, and we should have the right to bargain
Mr. Wheeler, the UAW official, cautioned that the fight to unionize graduate
students was not over. The union could appeal the board's ruling in federal
court, or it could continue to try to organize unions, staging strikes and
other labor actions to force universities to voluntarily recognize them.
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