August 26, 2016

Word: Unions in the ivory tower

NY Times editorial - In a corrective action more than a decade in the making, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities have the right to unionize.

The ruling reverses a misguided decision by the board in 2004, which held that graduate assistants at Brown University were primarily students, not employees, and thus had no standing to form a union. The new ruling, issued in response to a petition by graduate students at Columbia University, found graduate assistants to be employees if they are paid to do jobs that are overseen by the university, even if they have other relationships to the institution.

The new ruling also notes that nothing in federal labor law indicates that university employees are to be treated any differently than other workers when it comes to the right to organize. Yet the earlier ruling simply accepted the university assertions that unionization was incompatible with academic life because it would intrude on matters like academic freedom, the relationship between graduate students and professors, grading procedures and exam formats.

None of that has turned out to be true in the experience of public universities with graduate student unions. Some 35,000 teaching and research assistants across the country are currently in unions. The board pointed to research conducted at public universities, many of which have long been unionized under state laws. The studies found that unionization either had no impact on academic matters or had actually fostered improvements in university life.

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