Graduate Students At Private Universities Petition Labor Board For Right To Organize Unions

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is revisiting a previous decision that denied graduate students who work as research assistants at private universities the right to organize and collectively bargain, drawing protests from prestigious private universities and their allies. In 2004, the NLRB prohibited the unionization of graduate-student assistants at private universities when it ruled that they were students, not employees of the university.

A NLRB regional director ruled last year, however, that some graduate assistants at New York University have “a dual relationship” that is “both academic and economic,” a decision the would make them employees and gave the NLRB an opening to revisit its decision. Private universities opposed that decision and, in briefs reviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Education, said giving labor rights to student workers would undermine the private graduate system:

“It is no exaggeration to state that the future of American private graduate education is at stake in these cases,” argued a brief submitted by Brown University, which faces the prospect of the board reversing a 2004 decision that prohibited the unionization of its graduate-student assistants.

The American Council on Education joined several other higher-education associations in arguing, “Students enroll in graduate school to complete their higher education, not to work for wages. Their relationship with the university is fundamentally one of a student and teacher, not master-servant.”

Brown’s claim that the system “is at stake” if the NLRB decides in favor of the student workers does seem to be an exaggeration, given that graduate student workers at public universities have had the right to organize and collectively bargain for decades, and those schools continue to grow and prosper. (Public graduate students are governed by state labor laws, not the NLRB.)


The ACE’s claim, meanwhile, that students shouldn’t have rights because they are students ignores that these students do, indeed, work for wages, a fact that would seem to grant them an economic relationship covered by labor law. The NLRB has also previously decided that other workers in graduate schools — such as apprentices — are subject to the National Labor Relations Act. Medical residents are also subject to labor law, though the ACE argues that their precedent does not apply because they have already graduated.

“Nobody who looks at the reality of the current university today can argue that graduate students are not employees,” Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University, told the Cornell Daily Sun in 2010. “Graduate students are used as workers in the University — they are hired to fill in wherever there are openings. The faculty doesn’t spend time teaching graduate students how to teach — they use them as employees to do the teaching for them.”