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Collective Bargaining Rights for Graduate Assistants

Dear Colleague,

Last week, the AAUP filed an amicus brief with the National Labor Relations Board arguing that graduate assistants at private-sector institutions should be considered employees with collective bargaining rights. The board had invited amicus briefs in the Northwestern University football players’ case to address a variety of issues, including whether the board should modify or overrule its 2004 decision in Brown University, 342 NLRB 483 (2004), which found that graduate assistants were not employees and therefore did not have statutory rights to unionize.

In our brief, the AAUP argued that the board should overrule the Brown decision on graduate assistants, but did not take a position as to whether the unionization of college football players was appropriate.

The AAUP took particular issue with the Brown decision’s argument that academic freedom concerns justified depriving graduate assistants of the right to unionize:

At its core, the Brown University test of employee status is based on an erroneous understanding of the relationship between academic freedom and collective bargaining. . . . Indeed, interim developments provide further support for the notion that collective bargaining is compatible with academic freedom. These include the NYU administration’s decision to voluntarily recognize its graduate assistant union and a new research study that is the first to provide a cross-campus comparison of how faculty-student relationships and academic freedom fare at unionized and non-unionized campuses.

Therefore, the AAUP concluded that “the board should overrule the test of employee status applied in Brown University and return to its well-reasoned NYU decision, which found collective bargaining by graduate assistants compatible with academic freedom.”

Aaron Nisenson
AAUP Senior Counsel