In a case closely watched by universities and unions across the country, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Nov. 16 that teaching assistants at Brown University are employees eligible to form a union.
The ruling, which makes Brown TAs the second group of graduate students at a private university in the country to be able to unionize, represents the first time the NLRB has applied the landmark 2000 ruling that declared TAs at New York University employees.
NLRB Regional Director Rosemary Pye’s ruling requires a union election among the 450 or so eligible TAs. An election will be held Dec. 6-7, said Sheyda Jahanbani, a member of the Brown Graduate Employee Organization, the group trying to organize graduate students.
If the union wins a majority of votes, BGEO could become the second TA union at a private university, as well as a trendsetter in what has become a growing movement for TA unionization on campuses around the country.
Brown officials have until Nov. 30 to appeal the NLRB decision but have not made any decision yet, said Brown spokesman Mark Nickel.
“It’s one small step for Brown graduate students and one giant leap for graduate student unionization,” Jahanbani said. “But on the same token, I believe it’s a very personal decision.”
At Yale, J.T. Way GRD ’05, chairman of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, said the ruling would help the momentum of the graduate student union movement.
But the ruling will not have a direct effect on GESO’s efforts, since the organization is not seeking an NLRB election. Instead, GESO wants to be recognized through card-count neutrality, a process by which the University would not make any statements about unionization and the union would be formed if a majority of potential members turned in signed union cards.
After the 2000 NYU ruling, groups on several campuses began organizing drives among graduate students, including BGEO. When the group filed for an NLRB election last spring, Brown officials filed an appeal, claiming the NYU decision did not apply to Brown.
Brown officials argued that their case was different than NYU, because TAs at Brown were required to teach for their degrees, making them students. But in her ruling, Pye noted that many TAs worked beyond the requirements.
With efforts to form graduate student unions on many other campuses, Jahanbani said she expects the ruling to further the cause. But she added that unionization is a matter of unique circumstances at different campuses.
“My view is this will be the wave of the future, but by the same token, it’s something local,” Jahanbani said. “It was not done to make a large political point but because we believe it can better our lives at Brown and make Brown a better institution.”
But Way said the Brown decision had a wider effect.
“Every graduate teacher and researcher at Yale feels the incredible momentum of what’s going on with unionization in higher education,” Way said. “Here in the Northeast, university after university is making history, and so every development has an impact on the drive.”
Yale Graduate School Dean Susan Hockfield disputed the significance of the ruling.
“The vast majority of NLRB-sanctioned employees aren’t unionized,” Hockfield said. “Just because unionization is a possibility does not mean that that structure is optimal for any given industry or company or group of employees. Even though the NLRB might permit graduate students in private universities to unionize, it doesn’t necessarily lead to graduate students in any given university to decide this is in their best interest.”