In a decision that reopens a whole universe of unorganized workers to unions, the National Labor Relations Board ruled on Tuesday that private college teaching assistants and research assistants are “employees” under labor law and can be unionized.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka estimated that more than 100,000 TAs and RAs would be eligible to unionize. “Like all other working people, they deserve a say in their wages, benefits and working conditions,” he added.
In a case involving Columbia University, whose TAs and RAs are campaigning to join the United Auto Workers, the three-person board majority said that its predecessors 12 years ago – a majority named by GOP President George W. Bush – were wrong in accepting colleges’ arguments that the TAs and RAs were students, not workers. That overturned a prior case.
The relationship between the TAs and RAs and their employing university or college is mostly economic, the board majority said in its new 3-1 ruling. The Republican-appointed member of the board dissented.
“Our starting point in determining whether student assistants are covered by” labor law is its definition of “employee,” the majority, led by Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce, explained. “The term ‘employee’ shall include any employee, subject to certain exceptions — none of which address students employed by their universities,” he wrote.
In the 2004 case involving Brown University, that board “held that graduate assistants cannot be statutory employees because they ‘are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.’ We disagree.”
Pearce and his colleagues called the TAs and RAs “statutory employees” who “perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated. Statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship. It is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship” – being a grad student – that labor law does not cover.
Given that labor law ‘encourages collective bargaining, plus the broad definitions of “employee,” the board majority called it “appropriate to extend coverage to students working for universities covered by the act unless there are strong reasons not to do so.”
The board’s ruling sent the Columbia case back down to its New York region to determine which TAs and RAs can vote on unionizing. Among the issues: Are TAs who are employed one semester, but not the next, then re-employed the following semester, eligible?
The board’s ruling in the Columbia case cheered the UAW.
“Graduate workers at Columbia University and at private universities across the country...won back their union rights in a sweeping decision today by the NLRB,” the Columbia grad students said in a statement.