The United Auto Workers (UAW) first petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to represent about 3,000 graduate assistants at Columbia University in December of 2014. The Regional Director dismissed the petition based on current law that prohibits graduate students from joining unions because they are students, not employees. On appeal, the Board reinstated the petition and remanded the case to the Regional Director to conduct hearings. The Regional Director must now determine whether the graduate students can organize.
The union seeks to overturn Brown University, a 2004 case in which the Board denied collective bargaining rights to private university graduate assistants. In that case, the Board explained that the students had a predominantly academic, rather than employment, relationship with their school. If, as predicted, the Regional Director again dismisses the students’ representation petition, we expect the union to appeal to the NLRB, again, seeking to overturn Brown University.
Unions are eager to enter new industries, and the education industry has been one of their favorite targets. Some unions (and universities) have agreed to sidestep the NLRB and form unions that are not subject to Board governance or oversight. Assuming the current, activist Board will overturn Brown University, universities everywhere must brace for a proliferation of graduate student union organizing.