June 2012, Week 4


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Portside Labor <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 25 Jun 2012 22:50:12 -0400
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Revived Fight on Grad Unions 
By Scott Jaschik 
Inside Higher Ed 
June 25, 2012


WASHINGTON -- The National Labor Relations Board
announced Friday that it will reconsider a 2004 ruling
by the board that took away the right of graduate
students at private universities to unionize.

The 3-to-1 vote to reconsider the 2004 ruling was
brought about by efforts to unionize graduate teaching
assistants at New York University and graduate research
assistants at the Polytechnic Institute of NYU. In both
of those cases, regional NLRB officials ruled that the
graduate students could not unionize because of the
2004 ruling, in which the board found that teaching
assistants at Brown University were primarily students,
not employees, and thus lacked the right to collective
bargaining. (State law governs the unionization rights
of graduate students at public universities, and some
states permit collective bargaining while others do

In accepting both NYU cases for review, the NLRB
specifically said it was going to review the Brown
decision, and it invited comment on the issues.

The NLRB has flip-flopped on the issue of graduate
student unions at private universities, with votes to
back the practice when Democratic appointees have held
the upper hand on the board, and votes to take away
union rights for graduate students when Republican
appointees have been in the majority. Many in the
academic labor movement had hoped for the NLRB to move
quickly, once President Obama was in office, to restore
union rights to graduate students. But the NLRB under
President Obama has been the site of intense partisan
battles, controversial rulings, blocked nominees and
threats by Congressional Republicans to legislate to
counter some NLRB rulings. While higher education
unions have not been at the center of these fights, the
NLRB has been divided on a number of issues along the
same way it may split on graduate student unions.

The United Auto Workers, which is seeking to represent
both NYU graduate student groups, hoped to use the NYU
cases to restore the right for graduate unions.
Graduate students and union organizers at other private
universities -- especially at the University of Chicago
-- are hoping a win by the NYU unions will open the
door to unions at many other private universities.

The NLRB regional officials who heard the cases set the
stage for the new review when they rejected the union
bids, citing the Brown decision. They said that they
had to find as they did because of the Brown ruling,
but questioned that precedent.

In the ruling on the teaching assistants, the NLRB
regional office said: "Whether through teaching or
research, the graduate students are performing services
for pay which also are in furtherance [of] their
studies. That the employer pays for these services
pursuant to its financial aid budget, instructional
budget, operational budget, or through federal grants,
is irrelevant to an analysis of employee status or
community of interest." The ruling on NYU Polytechnic's
graduate research assistants was less explicit in
rejecting the Brown decision, but said that the
interaction between graduate research assistants
resembled a student relationship in some ways but an
employee relationship in other ways.

The majority decision announcing review of the Brown
ruling was brief, but cited "compelling reasons for

A dissent by Brian E. Hayes said that the only real
change since the Brown decision was "a change in the
board's membership."

Hayes also argued that the NLRB shouldn't keep
reversing itself on this issue. "Even absent any
supplemental information or argument of significance,
there is the distinct possibility that my colleagues
will change the law in this area for the third time in
twelve years," he wrote. "Such a course would tend to
undermine both the predictability inherent in the rule
of law as well as the Board's credibility. It would
also impermissibly distort both labor relations and
student relations stability in the higher education

Officials of the UAW did not respond to requests for
comments, but those on the NYU UAW group on Facebook
were cheering the NLRB news as a key move forward in
their drive for a union. And University of Chicago
graduate students are endorsing the NLRB move, via
Twitter, as a "major next step" in their drive to

A spokesman for NYU, John Beckman, said via e-mail that
the NLRB move to review the Brown decision was
"regrettable" and "particularly unwarranted" in the
case of NYU.

"At NYU, we have always believed these individuals are
students, not employees: they are admitted as students
because of their academic promise, not hired as
employees because of their job skills. But beyond that,
in the years since 2004, the facts at NYU changed in
ways that make the case for grad student unionization
even less cogent: assistantships are no longer part of
our graduate students' financial aid packages - for
several years, they have received full fellowship
support for five years (including full scholarship, a
stipend of more than $23,000, and their health care
premiums paid for by NYU - a package worth over $75,000
annually) without assistantship responsibilities, such
as teaching or grading.  Those who do want to teach are
hired as adjunct faculty, and as such are paid over and
above their financial aid package and are eligible to
be represented by the adjunct faculty collective
bargaining unit," Beckman said.

Further, he said that including research assistants "is
a particularly worrisome development for higher
education. What research assistants do is inextricably
connected to their personal research and their pursuit
of their degrees, and unionization of RAs would raise
serious concerns about bringing collective bargaining
into the middle of academic decision-making."

NYU has a unique history with regard to graduate
student unions. In 2002, NYU became the only private
university to recognize a T.A. union. At the time, the
relevant NLRB ruling recognized the right of graduate
students to collective bargaining. After the Brown
decision, NYU regained the right to reject collective
bargaining, and it did so in 2005. The union went on
strike to try to force the university to recognize it,
but the strike fizzled out.

Friday's announcement was the second by the NLRB in
recent weeks that it would reconsider important legal
issues regarding unions and private universities.

In May, the NLRB requested comment on whether faculty
members at private colleges should be eligible to
unionize -- something that a 1980 Supreme Court
decision largely blocked them from doing.


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