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Graduate students at private schools can now unionize

Twelve years after a ruling forbidding grad students at private universities from unionizing, the National Labor Relations Board gave them the go-ahead Wednesday.

by Brendan James
Aug 24 2016, 6:05pm

Columbia University

For the first time, graduate students at private universities can do something their counterparts at state schools already do — unionize.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) did a 360 on Wednesday, giving private university graduate students the right to unionize after previously ruling against collective bargaining in 2004.

Research shows that, in recent years, much of the work done at four-year institutions has fallen to a steadily expanding part-time staff. These instructors, including graduate teaching assistants, rose between 15 percent and 25 percent at most four-year schools between 2000 and 2012, according to a study at the American Institutes for Research. At master's colleges, that growth was even higher, at 35 percent.

"Part-time faculty/graduate assistants typically account for at least half of the instructional staff in most higher education sectors," the 2014 report said. "Institutions have continued to hire full-time faculty, but at a pace that either equaled or lagged behind student enrollments; these new hires also were likely to fill non-tenure-track positions."

Unlike at public universities, where graduate students can collectively bargain, private universities have been able to stave off union drives by leaning on the NLRB's 2004 ruling. Wednesday's decision also affected outside-funded research assistants.

Officials at Columbia University, where a union bid sparked the NLRB's review of the rule, disagreed with the ruling.

"[W]e believe the academic relationship students have with faculty members and departments as part of their studies is not the same as between employer and employee," the school said in a statement.

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The president of Yale echoed that sentiment in a statement to the campus community: "I have long been concerned that this relationship would become less productive and rewarding under a formal collective bargaining regime, in which professors would be 'supervisors' of their graduate student 'employees.'"

In contrast to the private schools' arguments against unionization, a 2013 study cited by the NLRB found that unionized graduate students at public universities enjoyed better pay, more academic freedom, and stronger institutional support.

Follow Brendan James on Twitter: @deep_beige