Feds Bolster Union Ranks By Making Grad Students Workers by Connor D. Wolf

Federal officials opened the door to graduate students unionizing Tuesday in a decision that could upend the sacred relationship students have with their teachers.

Columbia University graduate students have led a nationwide fight to gain the right to unionize. Universities have opposed the push because it would make their students more akin to employees. The National Labor Relation Board (NLRB) has decided to side with the graduate students.

“The threshold question before us is whether students who perform services at a university in connection with their studies are statutory employees,” the decision detailed. “We hold today that student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees under the Act.”

Feds Bolster Union Ranks By Making Grad Students Workers
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Grad Students

Those opposed argue that it undermines the mentorship students have with their professors. Essentially university faculty will become employers as opposed to mentors and teachers. The decision reversed a 2004 case involving Brown University that has prevented graduate students from forming unions.

“The Brown University Board held that graduate assistants cannot be statutory employees,” the decision also noted. “We disagree. The Board has the statutory authority to treat student assistants as statutory employees, where they perform work, at the direction of the university.”

Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Cornell and several other universities banded together in March against the union push. They issued a legal brief which made the case that granting graduate students the right to collectively bargain as a union completely disregards the purpose of being a student.

“This misguided, politically-driven decision re-writes the law by changing the meaning of words that were passed by Congress,” Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, a former university president, said in a statement. “That’s not the NLRB’s job. The ruling misunderstands both the nature of representative government and the teacher-student relationship.”

Graduate students often become student teachers or assume many other roles that could be considered work. They often get paid for these activities despite not technically considering it employment. The NLRB ruling changes that so that the students that perform work related activities can be considered workers.

“This is just the latest extreme ruling from the NLRB siding with big labor over American free enterprise,” America Rising Squared Communications Director Jeremy Adler told InsideSources. “Today’s ruling takes freedom away from universities seeking to make their own educational decisions and also threatens to cost them millions.”

America Rising is a nonprofit research group that promotes conservative policies. There is nothing stopping a union from welcoming in a graduate student. Without being considered an employee, however, the students are not allowed the right to collectively bargain.

Collective bargaining is a powerful tool for unions because it allows them to unite workers together whether they want to or not. Unions most often try to organize workplaces as a collective unit because it gives them more leverage to negotiate with employers.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) has been at the forefront of the graduate student union push. The union worked alongside graduate students to form the Graduate Workers of Columbia-GWC. Together they hoped to overturn the Brown decision.


About the Author

Connor D. Wolf

Connor Wolf discovered his love for writing and politics at a young age while growing up in Connecticut. He eventually had the chance to pursue his passions when entering the world of journalism. Since that time he has covered labor policy, business and financial regulations.