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Collective bargaining of graduate assistants already works fine in public universities and will work in private universities as well, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decided Aug. 23. The NLRB ruled that graduate student-employees at private universities are "employees" within the definition of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and should be allowed to form unions and collectively bargain.
The NLRB ruling will open the floodgates to unionization drives at private universities, predicted Steve Bernstein, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Tampa, Fla.
Public University Student-Employees
The NLRA excludes any state from its definition of "employer." So, state law governs collective bargaining at public universities, not the NLRA.
In its decision Aug. 23, the NLRB overturned an old NLRA decision, Brown University, 342 NLRB 483 (2004), which held that graduate assistants at private universities could not organize because they weren't defined as "employees" under the NLRA. That prohibition didn't prevent graduate assistants from organizing at public universities, however. And they've been doing so without harmful effects, the current NLRB said.
Graduate student-employees are more frequently participating in collective bargaining at U.S. universities, the NLRB found. "Recent data show that more than 64,000 graduate student-employees are organized at 28 institutions of higher education, a development that began at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1969 and that now encompasses universities in California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington," it noted.
"At these universities, to be sure, collective bargaining is governed by state law, not by the NLRA," the NLRB acknowledged. "Even so, the experience with graduate student[-employee] collective bargaining in public universities is of relevance in applying the act, as the closest proxy for experience under the act."
The board noted that the University of Illinois, Michigan State University and Wayne State University all have language in their graduate-assistant collective bargaining agreements giving management defined rights concerning courses, course content, course assignments, exams, class size, grading policies and methods of instruction, as well as graduate students' progress on their own degrees. "These agreements show that parties can and successfully have navigated delicate topics near the intersection of the university's dual role as educator and employer," the board stated.
The board also noted in its Columbia University decision, 364 NLRB No. 90, that it has frequently applied the act to faculty in the university setting and stated that no clear language exempts student assistants from the NLRA's coverage.
NLRB member Philip Miscimarra dissented, raising the following concerns:
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