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NYU Graduates Win Right to Form Union

According to decisions disclosed yesterday, November 1, by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), New York University's graduate, teaching, and research assistants have won the right to form a union. In what is being heralded as a historic decision, NYU is set to become the first privately run academic institution in the U.S. to house a graduate union. NLRB board members ruled that graduate assistants should be considered "employees" under the National Labor Relations Act and so eligible to vote for bargaining rights.

After spending months deliberating the original decision made by NRLB's New York regional director, Dan Silverman (who found that NYU graduate assistants were statutory employees), NLRB board members concurred that "graduate assistants are paid for their work and are carried on the Employer's payroll system." Therefore, these assistants "are entitled to organize and bargain with their employer even though they are enrolled as students."

Calling the NLRB ruling "comprehensive and clear," Elizabeth Bunn, vice president of the United Auto Workers (UAW)--the union seeking to represent NYU graduate assistants--enthused in a press release that "this decision confirms what academic student employees at campuses across the country know ... they are workers and are treated as such by their employers." It is a "decision that will establish precedent for hundreds of thousands of academic student employees at private institutions," the UAW press release reads.

By contrast, NYU spokesperson John Beckman says in an NYU press release that yesterday's disclosure is "an incorrect decision with substantial educational implications." University administrators argued that graduate assistants who work for them are "not entitled to the protections of the [National Labor Relations Act] because they are students."

The board flatly rejected NYU's "narrow reading of the statute" and in far-reaching language went on to state that "we will not deprive workers who are compensated by, and under the control of, a statutory employer ... the right to organize and bargain with their employer, simply because they are also students." Also thrown out was NYU's claim that graduate assistants are not paid for their work. "The Employer insists that the graduate assistants do not receive compensation but simply financial aid ... we reject [that] argument."

The NLRB has shown "a serious lack of understanding of graduate education," remarks Beckman. "We are disappointed by the decision."

The victory for NYU graduates and the Graduate Students Organizing Committee (GSOC) was 3 years in the making. With backing from the UAW, graduate students began campaigning for employee rights and the opportunity to unionize in the fall of 1997--which ultimately led to a ballot this spring. The votes, which were impounded pending the NLRB's final decision, can now be counted.

The UAW only "seeks to represent a unit of graduate students," the NLRB report summarises. "Relatively few" science-based graduate assistants are excluded from bargaining rights because they are paid by external funds, not by the university. So, in upholding Silverman's decision, the NLRB thus "has created artificial distinctions between different 'types' of graduate assistants" at NYU, Beckman asserts. Earlier this spring, however, some graduate students contacted by Next Wave expressed hope that should a union contract be negotiated, the university might be "compelled" to extend union-negotiated arrangements to students across the campus.

Those discussions are for the future. For now, UAW officials state that the GSOC is "confident that it will prevail in the vote count and is ready to sit down with the NYU administration at the negotiating table."

There will be more on this development in the November 10 issue of the Career Development Center.