National Labor Relations Board: Student assistants at private universities qualify as employees

Julia Jacobs, Editor in Chief

The National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that student assistants at private colleges and universities such as Northwestern should be considered employees, reversing a 2004 decision establishing that graduate students could not formally unionize.

The board ruled 3-1 that student assistants, as university employees, have the right to collectively bargain, saying the Brown University decision made over a decade ago “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections” of the National Labor Relations Act “without a convincing justification,” according to a news release. The case was based on an election petition filed by a Columbia University union seeking to represent graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants, as well as graduate and departmental research assistants.

“What this decision does is, at the very least, it first and foremost recognizes our labor and the work that we contribute to campus,” said Matilda Stubbs, an eighth-year anthropology student at Northwestern, in anticipation of the ruling.

The University’s position is that unionization and collective bargaining are not the “appropriate methods” to deal with concerns from graduate student assistants, University spokesman Al Cubbage said in a statement.

Many states, including Illinois, allow graduate students at public-sector universities to unionize. There are about 33 graduate employee unions in the United States, according to the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions’ website. Graduate students at some private universities such as the University of Chicago have collectively bargained with the administration without official recognition.

In response to Tuesday’s decision, Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union said “restoring the rights of graduate workers” is a key part of ensuring teachers and researchers have a say in the future of higher education. SEIU is running a national campaign, involving some Northwestern instructors and students, to help a range of faculty and other campus workers seek collective bargaining rights with their universities.

Cubbage said in the statement that the University provides guaranteed funding to graduate students for five years, a “high-availability” of support for sixth-year students in MFA and Ph.D. programs at TGS, and “excellent” health care coverage.

Those who opposed reversing the Brown decision hold that graduate students are at their institutions first and foremost to gain an education, and that granting graduate students collective bargaining rights has the potential to harm their relationships with professors.

The decision comes the same day hearings begin at the NLRB’s Chicago office to determine the verdict of July’s election in which non-tenure eligible faculty voted on whether to unionize. The hearing will determine the validity of 71 ballots, most of which the SEIU is questioning on the grounds of voter eligibility.

Stubbs said SEIU, which has been working with the non-tenure eligible faculty at NU, has begun to try to organize graduate students following movement toward contingent faculty unionization. Although Stubbs was not qualified to vote in July’s election as a graduate student — despite being the principal teacher of a class during Spring Quarter — she said graduate students and contingent faculty have much in common.

“The primary thing we have in common is that we simultaneously teach alongside one another,” Stubbs told The Daily before Tuesday’s decision. “We are literally offering the same quality of coursework, we’re doing the same amount of work and we’re doing it very independent.”

This story has been updated to include a recent statement from University spokesman Al Cubbage.      

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