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Student Teaching and Research Assistants Unite!

September 1, 2016 by

The NLRB on August 23 issued a ruling that private university students who work as teaching or research assistants and who meet the common-law definition of “employee” are no longer excluded from coverage under the National Labor Relations Act.  Columbia University, 364 NLRB No. 90 (Aug. 23, 2016) They can now unionize.

The Board overruled a 2004 decision, Brown University, that ruled graduate student assistants are by definition not employees and therefore not protected by the NLRA.  The Board in Brown denied coverage to graduate students based on a determination that the student-university relationship is primarily educational, not economic, and a concern that inserting collective bargaining would harm the student-teacher relationship.

In reversing Brown, the current Board rejected those concerns as speculative and contrary to the Act’s intent and language.  The Board reasoned that graduate-student employees are covered by the Act because there is a common-law employment relationship, this category of employees is not specifically excluded from the Act’s coverage, and there is no compelling reason for exclusion.

The current Board’s decision here is consistent with its emphasis on the intent of the Act to encourage the practice and procedure of collective bargaining.

Interns, residents and clinical fellows of teaching hospitals have been covered by the Act since 1999.  Many public universities governed by state labor-relations statutes, including in California, already permit student assistants to organize. In 1986, the California Supreme Court upheld the PERB’s decision that housestaff (medical interns, residents and clinical fellows in residency programs at University hospitals) are employees under HEERA. (41 Cal.3d 601.)   And in 1998, PERB concluded that graduate student instructors, readers and tutors are also employees under HEERA. (PERB Dec. No. 1261-H.)

The ivory tower and Ivy League can no longer insulate itself from dealing with student workers standing collectively to bargain for better wages and working conditions.  Organize.


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