Nicole Bengiveno / The New York Times

Students stand on the quad at Columbia University after the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of the Graduate Workers of Columbia.

August 24, 2016

CGSU Celebrates NLRB Definition of Grad Students as Workers With Right to Unionize

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Clarification appended

Cornell Graduate Students United celebrated a National Labor Relations Board announcement today ruling that graduate students are workers with the right to unionize, in a reversal of its 2004 decision.

In a 3-1 vote, the NRLB ruled in favor of The Graduate Workers of Columbia, a group which had argued that graduate workers are employees, as well as students, and thus should be protected by the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act.

“The Brown University Board’s decision, in turn, deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the [National Labor Relations] Act, without a convincing justification in either the statutory language of the policies of the Act,” the ruling said.

This reversal of the previous Brown University decision triggers provisions in an agreement reached between CGSU and Cornell’s administration in May. As the NLRB has acknowledged these workers as employees, the University will hold a campuswide union election and may form one the first collective bargaining agreements for graduate employees at a private university, according to a press release from the American Federation of Teachers, a partner of CGSU.

The Brown decision had stated that graduate students are primarily students, not employees, and therefore are not entitled to collective bargaining rights. The text of today’s reversal says that the Brown decision jeopardized “an entire category of workers …. without a convincing justification.”

“The case presents the issue of whether graduate student assistants who are admitted into, not hired by, a university, and for whom supervised teaching or research is an integral component of their academic development, must be treated as employees for purposes of collective bargaining,” said the now overturned Brown decision.

Former Brown University Provost Robert Zimmer agreed with the 2004 decision at the time, saying it recognized the academic aspects of undergraduate work.

“The NLRB correctly recognizes that a graduate student’s experience is a mentoring relationship between faculty and students, and is not a matter appropriate for collective bargaining,” he said at the time.

AFT President Randi Weingarten ’80 praised the decision for allowing private universities to join public universities in allowing graduate students to organize, calling Tuesday “a great day for workers.”

“The truth is graduate workers are the glue that holds higher education institutions together — without their labor, classes wouldn’t get taught, exams wouldn’t get graded and office hours wouldn’t be held,” she said. “The evidence considered by the board clearly showed that far from being detrimental, collective representation enhances the professor-graduate employee relationship so important to academic success.”

Many Cornell graduate students are pleased by the result of the highly anticipated decision, and say they believe it will lead enable a union to guard the rights of the graduate community.

“[The decision will] help improve the quality of graduate students’ lives,” said CGSU member Ibrahim Issa grad. “I think this will create a platform to defend our rights and form a tight knit community …Today is a big first step but there’s still much work to do.”

NYSUT President and AFT vice president Karen Magee echoed the praise of the graduate students. She added that Cornell graduate workers now have “one less hurdle to be recognized for the labor they undertake every day” and congratulated the GWC for their success.

“[Graduates] at private schools across New York state are coming together so their voices can be heard, and we’re behind them every step of the way,” she said.

A previous version of this article said that, according to the recent NLRB decision, students are employees instead of students. In fact, the decision clarifies that workers are both employees and students.