New York University graduate assistants are now members of a United Auto Workers affiliate union. They overwhelmingly approved a five-year contract that includes wage increases totaling at least 12% over five years and at least 90% of health care premiums paid for by NYU. The agreement covers about 1,500 research and teaching assistants working at NYU’s Washington Square campus and the Polytechnic Institute of NYU in Brooklyn. These are the country’s only private university graduate students covered by a collective bargaining agreement. But, didn’t the NLRB hold that graduate assistant roles were primarily academic and thus precluded from entering into a collectively bargained contract?

Yes it did. In 2004, the Board decided that teaching and research assistants did not have a right to bargain collectively because their relationship with their schools was primarily academic. Through ingenuity, the UAW convinced NYU to enter into a neutrality agreement with the union and allowed the students to decide whether they wanted union representation outside of NLRB governance.

While this is an isolated incident of graduate students being organized, more could be on the way. The UAW has been attempting to organize similar units of graduate students at two nearby New York private universities and support for similar non-Board elections is growing on campuses across the U.S. This non-traditional type of unionization is on the rise and will become more prevalent in the coming years.