Chemistry graduate students trying to unionize at private universities got a boost last week, after a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) gave them the right to collective bargaining.
Abhishek Chhetri, a biochemistry graduate student at Duke University, welcomed the news. “By being able to collectively bargain, we hope to improve conditions for all graduate student workers, thus benefiting everyone by allowing us to fully dedicate ourselves to our responsibilities of research and teaching,” he says.
Teaching and research assistants at public colleges and universities have been able to join labor unions since the 1960s. But NLRB has gone back and forth on the issue of student collective bargaining at private institutions of higher learning.
The board ruled in 2000 that New York University student assistants were employees and could unionize. In 2004, the board reversed itself, saying Brown University student assistants were not employees under the National Labor Relations Act.
NLRB’s 2004 decision “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act, without a convincing justification,” the board says in its most recent decision. “Coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship.”
Columbia disagrees with this determination. “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 university says in a statement.
Jack Nicoludis, a chemistry graduate student and one of the organizers of the UAW-affiliated Harvard Graduate Students Union, heralded the decision. “As teachers, the work we do allows faculty to have support for the work that needs to be done for classes. As researchers, the work we do supports grant proposals, intellectual property, and publications that all return money to the university,” he says. “What we want is a seat at the table with the administration” to negotiate terms of employment, he says, highlighting issues of concern to graduate students: grievance procedures, child care, and health care.
The Service Employees International Union says, “Graduate assistants at Duke, Northwestern, Saint Louis University, American University, and countless other colleges and universities are taking immediate steps on campus and online to advance their efforts to build unions with their coworkers.”