NLRB rules against grad student unions

In a 3-to-2 ruling, the National Labor Relations Board concluded Thursday that graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities do not have the right to unionize.

The ruling reversed a landmark 2000 decision by the board and was a clear setback for graduate student unionization efforts across the country. Though leaders of Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization have not pursued unionization through official NLRB procedures, they expressed disappointment at the ruling.

The NLRB ruled that 450 graduate teaching and research assistants at Brown University were students, not workers. Therefore, the ruling said they could not be represented by the United Auto Workers and do not have the right to negotiate wages or benefits.

The decision reversed the board’s 2000 ruling that graduate teaching and research assistants at New York University could unionize because their administrative responsibilities classified them workers. That ruling led NYU students to form the nation’s first graduate student union at a private institution.

GESO members said they were not surprised by the ruling. Spokeswoman Rachel Sulkes GRD ’01 said the group still hopes Yale President Richard Levin will negotiate a contract with graduate students.

“While we think that the decision is the wrong one, we are going to continue to ask him to sit down and negotiate that process with us,” Sulkes said.

Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said the administration believes the ruling is in “the best interest of the students and of the nation’s higher education system.”

“Yale is pleased at the NLRB ruling, which restores graduate teaching assistants to their traditional standing as primarily students,” Conroy said in an e-mail.

In its decision, the NLRB said graduate student unionizing would jeopardize student-university relationships.

“It is clear to us that graduate student assistants, including those at Brown, are primarily students and have primarily an educational, not economic, relationship with their university,” the majority opinion states.

The dissenting board members argued for a broad definition of “employee” and characterized the majority’s ruling as “woefully out of touch with contemporary academic reality.”

The Graduate Employees Organization at Brown remains determined to organize a union despite the NLRB’s ruling, Sheyda Jahanbani, a leader in the group said in a statement Friday.

“We are teaching classes, grading papers, advising students and performing work which is critical to the educational mission of this institution,” Jahanbani said. “And we’re entitled to the same rights as any other group of workers.”

Brown officials have long opposed graduate student unionization on the grounds that a union would negatively interfere with the relationship between faculty and graduate students.

United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger said Thursday’s decision was the result of partisan politics on the part of Republicans appointed to the NLRB by President George W. Bush ’68.

“The right to join together to bargain for a better standard of living is a basic human right,” Gettelfinger said in a statement Friday. “The labor board should be protecting and expanding the rights of workers, not restricting them.”

Following the NYU ruling four years ago, pro-union groups at private universities such as Brown, Tufts and the University of Pennsylvania polled graduate students on whether they wanted to unionize. But the universities’ administrations appealed to the NLRB and the votes were impounded pending a decision.

GESO did not organize an NLRB vote at Yale because administrators said in 2003 that they would not recognize the results of one, though they urged the organization to follow established NLRB procedures. GESO held a vote supervised by the League of Women voters in April 2003, which GESO narrowly lost.

Pro-union graduate student leaders from about15 universities, including Yale, will meet in New York from July 22 to 24 to plan a united response to the ruling.

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