The National Labor Relations Board recently ruled that graduate students who work at private universities as either teacher or research assistants are considered employees. The NLRB ruling gives these graduate students the opportunity to form and join unions that private university administrators must now recognize.

This long-awaited NLRB decision in Columbia University could have a substantial impact on private universities throughout the United States as the ruling offers a broad definition of which graduate students can be classified as school employees.

The NLRB Has Long Debated Graduate Students’ Roles and Rights

The roles and rights of graduate students have been criticized by many as unfair over the years as an increasing number of universities rely on low-paid adjuncts or doctoral students to teach rather than full-time university professors. This has caused graduate students to struggle because their teaching jobs at the university level are mostly seen as part of their education. But the recent NLRB ruling in a 3-1 decision overturned over 12 years of precedent where student assistants – including those engaged in externally-funded research grants – who have a “common law” employment relationship with private universities are now considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act. The law gives these graduate student workers the same protections as other employees – including the right to unionize. But it has taken a while and some flip-flopping to get to this point.

In fact, in the year 2000, the Board ruled that New York University graduate students were employees under the Act, but four years later, it overturned that decision in Brown University because graduate student relationships with the school were “primarily educational.” And now, the Board has changed course yet again.

The Board states that the Brown University decision “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the act, without a convincing justification in either the statutory language or policies of the act.”

NLRB Majority Stands by Their Decision, Minority Feels It Will Detract from Students’ Education

On the day of their ruling, the NLRB majority stated that the outcome of the NYU case was rightfully decided by the Board to conclude that student assistants could be both university students and employees. The majority also said that the Brown University ruling didn’t show that collective bargaining between Brown students and the university can’t transpire within an educational institution.

The Board wrote, “It seems clear to usthat the [NLRA]’s text supports the conclusion that student assistants who are common-law employees are covered by the Act, unless compelling and statutory policy considerations require an exception.”

However, Republican board member, Philip A. Misimarra, stated that he was concerned that collective bargaining may distract from students’ education. Misimarra also wonders if the board is capable of dealing with cases involving graduate students and unfair labor practices.

Where Universities Stand on the Graduate Student-Employee Issue

Because many doctoral programs across the nation require university students to take on the roles of teachers and researchers prior to earning their college degrees, universities feel they have an educational relationship with these students – and not one that is economic in nature.

The NLRB decision, however, makes it clear that because these graduate students are being paid by their universities, they are employees for purposes of the NLRB and may engage in collective action, including collective bargaining.

Article adapted from original, Are they students? Or are they employees? NLRB rules that graduate students are employees via The Washington Post

NLRB Rules Graduate Students Are Employees: For Further Reading

  • National Labor Relations Board Hearings GWC-UAW Local 2110 via Graduate Workers of Columbia University
  • NLRB Rules Graduate Students Are Employees with The Right To Unionize via
  • NLRB rules that grad students are employees, opens door to unionization via Chicago Tribune

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