As dust settles on the University’s battle over graduate student research assistant unionization, a new front is opening at the National Labor Relations Board over the status of graduate students at the nation’s private universities.

In July, the NLRB’s members split in a 3-1 vote to review its own 2004 ruling preventing graduate students at private universities from unionizing. The vote, divided between the three Democratic members of the NLRB and the lone Republican, is the latest in a series of reviews of an issue with a decades-long history.

Though debates over graduate student unionization at private universities have occurred since the 1980s, a regional NLRB administrator ruled in 2000 that graduate student teaching assistants did, in fact, have the right to collectively bargain. However, in 2004, the NLRB itself, then dominated by appointees of former president George W. Bush, ruled that the teaching and research components of a graduate student’s duties were secondary to their primary role as students. Graduate students in private universities were not afforded the protections of the National Labor Relations Act.

The latest case involves the United Auto Workers, which is representing the graduate students of New York University in contest with the school’s administration. The precedent setting cases in 2000 and 2004 involved these same parties, Brown University.

NYU, the UAW and the Polytechnic Institute of NYU have submitted written legal arguments to the NLRB, which will review the documents. Granting graduate students collective bargaining rights would reverse the body’s 2004 decision.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, former NLRB Chairman Robert Battista —who oversaw the 2004 ruling — said though the composition of the board has changed, he doesn’t believe the partisan shift of the NLRB from predominantly Republican to Democratic will matter for this case.

Battista said by custom, three members of the board are of the President’s party and two represent the opposition. Recently, the U.S. Senate has been the scene of intense partisan battles over the appointment of new members to the NLRB, and as a result, only four members are on the board.

“You’re always going to have a board made of Republicans and Democrats, but it just has to do with how the issues come up,” Battista said. “I don’t believe it has anything to do with the party in power.”

Battista said the UAW was simply following protocol in appealing its case to the highest body possible after a regional official enforced the 2004 ruling.

However, Brian Hayes, the sole Republican NLRB member and dissenting voice on the decision to review, posted his opinion on the NLRB website, stating there was no substantive change warranting review of the 2004 ruling.

“The asserted compelling reason for reconsidering Brown (the 2004 ruling) consists of nothing more than a change in the Board’s membership,” Hayes wrote. “Thus, the request for review in this case and Polytechnic simply recycle arguments made by the dissenters and rejected by the majority in Brown.”

In a press release, John Beckman, a NYU spokesman, called the decision to review the status of the graduate students for the third time in “roughly a dozen years” unsettling and unwarranted.

Beckman noted that while the 2000 case only dealt with graduate student teaching assistants, in the most recent case, the UAW chose to include graduate student research assistants.

“The inclusion of research assistants this time around — they were excluded in 1999 at the request of the UAW — is a particularly worrisome development for higher education,” Beckman wrote. “What research assistants do is inextricably connected to their personal research and their pursuit of their degrees, and unionization of RAs would raise serious concerns about bringing collective bargaining into the middle of academic decision-making.”

The UAW did not respond to requests for comment.

While the NLRB regulates only private universities, this new review highlights the national debate regarding the role of graduate students as students or employees.

Public universities are regulated by state-level labor relations boards. The Michigan Employment Relations Commission regulates the University of Michigan.

At the University, there appears to be a lull in the battle over graduate research assistant unionization after a definitive ruling by the Michigan Court of Appeals on Aug. 16 stating that the immediate effect portion of House Bill 4246 is indeed legal, and therefore prevents graduate student research assistants from forming a union.

Rackham student Stephen Raiman, founder of Students Against GSRA Unionization, said that in the wake of the favorable judicial outcome, SAGU is in a holding pattern awaiting further developments.

“I’m happy that we won’t have the state government interfering with our educations,” Raiman said. “We’re uninterested in playing politics. We’re interested in being graduate students.”

However, Raiman said he is concerned about a proposed state ballot initiative to expand protections for collective bargaining, which could give graduate student research assistants at the University the leverage to challenge HB 4246. The proposal is tentatively on the ballot for the November election — following a ruling by the Board of State Canvassers — but will likely be reviewed by the Michigan Supreme Court before the Sept. 7 deadline for ballot initiatives.

In relation to the NLRB review, Raiman acknowledged there are fundamental differences between the role of teaching assistants and research assistants within universities throughout the country, and should therefore be approached differently. He added that SAGU plans to leave a “blueprint” for how to oppose research assistant unionization elsewhere.

“We are interested in helping graduate students who encounter the same threat in the future,” Raiman said. “We do feel that these unions are moving into a territory that they shouldn’t be moving.”

Rackham student Liz Rodrigues, communications co-chair for the Graduate Employees Organization, said despite the ruling by the Court of Appeals, GEO is still working to address the needs of research assistants regardless of their relatively limited bargaining position.

According to Rodrigues, GEO is working with other state unions to support the ballot initiative that expands collective bargaining protections, which could affect the ability of GSRAs to unionize.

Rodrigues added that even though GEO is not directly involved with the NLRB review, the organization supports the right of graduate students at private universities to unionize.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.