In a HUGE change of labor law jurisprudence, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced its ruling today in Columbia University that graduate students at private colleges and universities are protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This means that graduate students working at their attending college as a teaching or research assistant are considered employees of that institution under the NLRA, and thus can form a union and have collective bargaining rights.
This decision is a change from the previous rule on this issue the Board set forth in Brown University in 2004 (342 NLRB 483). In Brown, the Board ruled that graduate assistants were primarily students, and thus not engaged in an “economic relationship” with their institutions. In Columbia University, the NLRB looked at the “contemporary academic reality” of the role graduate assistants play at colleges and universities, and decided that they were in fact employees, and thus covered by the law.
Under the NLRA, an individual must be a non-manager employee to have protected labor rights, but that term has a broad application in the modern work world. The Board has frequently defined the term “employee” as a relationship based on “economic exchange” between the employee and his/her employer. In Brown, the Board members viewed graduate assistants as primarily an academic school-to-student relationship, but that view has apparently changed with the ruling in Columbia.
Going forward (presuming no successful court appeal), graduate assistants at private universities like Columbia and NYU can form unions and demand collective bargaining rights, which could impact working conditions like teaching loads and course enrollment caps, create shared intellectual property rights for research findings, and generate opportunities for health benefits for the unionized graduate students.
Note that this ruling does not impact religious institutions, as long-standing case law holds that the process for protecting labor rights would infringe upon the religious freedom of those colleges. It also does not affect state colleges or universities, as the NLRA does not apply to state government entities; however, this ruling could influence state employee relations and labor law agencies (like MERC in Michigan) to reconsider relevant definitions and rules.
It is also of importance to note that the NLRB in Brown Univeristy (2004) was made up mostly of Republican appointees, while the current Board making the Columbia University ruling is mostly Democrat appointees. Traditionally, Democrat-led Boards have ruled towards expanding the NLRA’s reach, while Republican-led agencies have been generally in favor of narrower definitions under the law.