Private Universities’ Grad Students Get Right to Unionize


Graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities have a legal right to form unions, the National Labor Relations Board decided Wednesday.

The closely watched test case involving New York University opens private universities around the country to union campaigns that could significantly change the relationship between professors and students.

Unions have held out the promise of higher pay and better working conditions for graduate students, who traditionally earn very little as teaching assistants or researchers.


Universities fear higher costs but have also been concerned that bringing unions into the classroom will inevitably erode the control that professors have over basic academic decisions affecting graduate students’ workload--how much material a class should cover, when to schedule exams, due dates for papers and so on.

Leaders in private higher education were quick to denounce the decision. “The unionization of graduate student teaching and research assistants is not in the best interest of graduate students themselves, undergraduates or faculty across the country,” said Yale University President Richard C. Levin, whose institution has fought for a decade to hold off a unionization campaign.

NYU officials “disagree profoundly with the decision that overturns 25 years of precedent,” said university Vice President Robert Berne.

In addition to Yale, other institutions--Stanford, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton, Washington University, Boston University--and major university lobbying groups had filed legal briefs with the labor board urging it not to allow unionization. Major unions had sided with the graduate students, who are seeking representation by the United Auto Workers, which has been trying to organize graduate students around the country.

Unionization Trend in Academia

The ruling solidifies a trend toward increasing unionization in academia.

Last year, the labor board reversed a long-standing precedent and ruled that medical interns and residents could unionize. And, at public universities, graduate student unions have been allowed for more than two decades.

The UAW has won elections at numerous public universities, including eight UC campuses that unionized after the Democratic members of the state Legislature helped the UAW overcome resistance from the UC administration.

Private universities, which are governed by a different law than public campuses, had successfully blocked all such efforts. Universities have argued that graduate students are a special group who should be considered like apprentices, who work as part of their education, not like workers protected by federal labor law.

The labor board disagreed.

“We find there is no basis to deny collective-bargaining rights to statutory employees merely because they are employed by an educational institution in which they are enrolled as students,” the board ruled on a 3-0 vote.

Julie Kushner, a union director at NYU, called the ruling “a real shot in the arm for organizing academic employees at other institutions. You are going to see this at private universities all over the country.”

Patrick McCreery, an NYU graduate student in American studies, said he gets mobbed by graduate students from other universities when he attends academic conferences off campus.

“It’s a campaign that graduate students from Maine to California have been watching,” he said. “It’s going to be a big motivator to encourage other graduate students to organize.”

Last spring, more than 1,000 NYU graduate students cast ballots on the question of whether the Graduate Students Organizing Committee, an affiliate of the UAW, should become the bargaining unit for about 1,700 NYU graduate students--primarily those working as teaching assistants in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Because the university challenged the students’ right to hold an election, those ballots have not yet been counted. Both sides expect that to happen soon.

If the count determines that the union has won, the university must decide whether to comply with the labor board’s ruling and negotiate a contract or refuse to bargain and risk an unfair-labor-practice ruling, which is the only way under the law to challenge a labor board decision in court.

Levin, for one, urged universities to follow that path of resistance. “Ultimately, the federal courts must consider how the national interest would be best served,” he said.

A Staple of Major Research Universities

Major research universities have long relied on graduate students as cheap labor to help professors with their teaching loads. At NYU, graduate students teach the bulk of the core curriculum classes that lower-division undergraduates are expected to complete in order to get a degree.

At USC, the largest private research university in Southern California, about 2,100 graduate students hold jobs as teaching or research assistants, said Michael A. Diamond, vice president and executive vice provost.

Diamond said he has not seen any union organizing activity on campus, although he has heard students talking about it. “The movement is out there, and we see what’s happening to other schools,” he said.

Stanford has about 7,000 graduate students, and two-thirds of them hold teaching or research jobs, said Tom Wasow, former associate dean of graduate policy.

Wasow, emphasizing that he was not speaking for the Stanford administration, said he explored the matter during his four years as a dean and found himself skeptical of the claims of union and administration officials--that unionization would bring great benefits or great harm.

At institutions with longtime graduate student unions, such as the University of Wisconsin, Wasow said he found that union contracts neither dramatically improved the pay and working conditions of teaching assistants nor strained the historic collegiality between professors and student assistants.

The one real concern he found was that tuition waivers from private universities for graduate student workers could end up being considered income by the Internal Revenue Service, and thus subject to personal income tax.

“We would have to pay them a whole lot more,” he said, “or they won’t have anywhere near enough to live on.”