A clutch of recent developments suggests that efforts by graduate-student assistants to form unions at private universities may be gaining strength following the successful effort last year by New York University’s (NYU’s) research and teaching assistants to unionize a private campus, Vimal Patel reports in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
In 2004, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled, in the Brown University case, that graduate assistants are students rather than employees, preventing them from unionizing on private campuses. (NLRB has jurisdiction over private universities. Public universities are governed by the laws of the various states, some of which permit graduate-assistant unions.) The Brown University decision followed an earlier decision, in 2000, that—however briefly—appeared to grant NYU graduate assistants the right to organize.
Nonetheless, in November 2013, NYU decided to permit its teaching and research assistants to vote on whether they wanted a union. In December 2013, NYU's graduate assistants overwhelmingly endorsed the idea. “It’s the only example we have of a private university voluntarily and collaboratively agreeing to a free and fair process that would allow graduate teachers and researchers to decide on the union question,” says Aaron Greenberg, a political science graduate student and chair of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization at Yale University, as quoted by the Chronicle article.
Then on 12 March, the NLRB issued an invitation for interested parties, including “amici” (friends of the court not directly involved), to submit briefs expressing views on a case involving Northwestern University student athletes, which attracted national attention. An NLRB regional director declared that football players on athletic scholarships are employees and therefore eligible to form a union. Many, including Science Careers, have wondered why college athletes are considered employees and are therefore eligible to unionize and graduate assistants are not. The request for briefs is the “expected next step” in the NLRB’s consideration of whether the regional decision should stand and become national policy, notes Inside Higher Ed.
Greenberg’s group is now pushing Yale to emulate NYU and permit its graduate assistants to unionize. Graduate assistants on other private campuses “are trying to set the groundwork for organizing,” says Matt Canfield, an NYU anthropology graduate student and union activist, quoted in The Chronicle.
According to the Chronicle article, Canfield and others aren’t aware of organizing efforts at other private colleges that are as far along as those at Yale. Nevertheless, “We’ll soon see the resurgence of a broader movement,” Canfield maintains. “Graduate employees at private universities are trying to set the groundwork for organizing.”