National Labor Relations Board to Determine if Teaching, Research and Graduate Assistants Can Unionize

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Reopening a debate that has raged for 16 years as its partisan majorities swung back and forth, the National Labor Relations Board set a Feb. 29 deadline for initial briefs on whether teaching assistants, research assistants and graduate assistants at private universities are employees – and thus can unionize – or not.

And it wants to know if undergrads who toil in campus-sponsored work-study programs should be able to unionize and join that bargaining unit, too.

The latest case involves Columbia University graduate assistants, who want to unionize with the Auto Workers. In addition to the basic question of whether they can do so, the board wants both sides to discuss what standards it should use to rule whether specific groups of TAs and graduate assistants are “employees” or not, and thus eligible to organize and bargain.

But it also asked both sides to address whether the undergrads and RAs and TAs whose income comes mostly from outside grants could organize and bargain, as part of the same union, too.

The issue is important to tens of thousands of underpaid, overworked TAs, graduate assistants and research assistants at private universities nationwide.  In 2004, a GOP-majority NLRB, by a 3-2 partisan vote, reversed a prior decision from 2000, and ruled the TAs and RAs are students, not “employees” under labor law, so unions cannot organize them.

Since those workers are not “employees,” but do most of the teaching and research at virtually every private university, the schools are free to exploit them. Their stipends may not be enough to cover their costs of housing and food, health insurance is virtually non-existent and they have no job security, no tenure and little prospect for it.

The ban on unionizing the TAs and RAs didn’t stop the UAW. It organized them at Columbia, then petitioned the board to order an election there. When the NLRB’s New York regional office said no – citing the 2004 ruling -- the TAs took their case to the full board.

“Student employees perform services for Columbia, receive compensation for those services, work to fulfill the mission of the university and do so under its direction and control,” the TAs’ prior brief says. “They thus meet the definition of an ‘employee’ under the dictionary definition, common law" and the National Labor Relations Act. "As employees, they are entitled to an election to determine whether they wish to be represented by a labor organization."



Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Press Associates

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