The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last week gave a nod to the first graduate students' union at a private university. The board's ruling that graduate teaching and research assistants at New York University (NYU) qualify as employees potentially puts them on equal footing with colleagues at publicly funded campuses in more than 20 states.
University administrators criticized the ruling. "We're deeply disappointed," said NYU dean for science Peter Lennie. Unionization "will change dramatically the way in which faculty relate to students," added vice president Robert Berne. But union supporters are "ecstatic," said Antony Dugdale, a spokesperson for the Graduate Employees and Students Organization at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, which has been leading efforts to unionize graduate students (Science, 29 November 1996, p. 1461).
The 2 November ruling upheld an earlier decision by a regional NLRB official that teaching assistants are paid employees and therefore eligible for collective bargaining. The university appealed that decision to the full NLRB, but the three-person panel rejected NYU's argument that graduate assistants get "financial aid," not salaries. Responding to concerns about union involvement in matters that should be purely academic, it noted that the history of faculty labor unions suggests that all parties will "confront any issues of academic freedom as they would any other issue in collective bargaining."
There is scant information on the effects of student unionization. A recent survey of 300 public university professors by Gordon Hewitt of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, found that more than 90% did not feel unions harmed their relations with students (see chart). But NYU officials said that labor relations at state universities--where about 20% of assistants are unionized--can't be compared with those at private schools, because federal law gives private employees broader organizing rights than it gives their colleagues at state-run schools. And a study by Daniel Julius of San Francisco State University and Patricia Gumport of Stanford University says unionization "heralds yet another breakdown in the internal organizational fabric of higher education."
Some private university leaders, including Yale president Richard Levin and Boston University chancellor John Silber, are urging NYU to challenge the new decision in federal court. NYU officials haven't said whether they will take that advice.