NLRB Ruling Is a Union Victory for Student Employee Rights at Private Institutions
In a victory for student employees and the unions that represent them, the National Labor Relations Board found on August 23, 2016 in the case of Columbia University that student assistants working at private colleges and universities are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act. The 3–1 decision overrules a 2004 decision in Brown University, which had found that graduate assistants were not employees and therefore did not have statutory rights to unionize.
“Graduate employees deserve a seat at the table and a voice in higher education. Collective bargaining can provide that,” said Howard Bunsis, chair of the AAUP Collective Bargaining Congress. “This is a tremendous victory for student workers and the AAUP stands ready to work with graduate employees to defend their rights, including rights to academic freedom and shared governance participation.”
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, and that collective bargaining promotes academic freedom. The brief further argued that rather than harming faculty-student mentoring relationships, graduate employee unionization can bring clarity to the employer-employee relationship.
In reversing Brown, the majority said that the earlier decision “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act without a convincing justification.” The board also agreed that granting collective bargaining rights to student employees would not infringe on First Amendment academic freedom, nor would it harm the student faculty relationship.
The AAUP has long been committed to organizing graduate employees and currently represents graduate employees at a number of public sector institutions, where the graduate employees represented by the AAUP have seen significant gains as a result of bargaining. This decision will allow student employees in the private sector to organize and seek similar improvements.