As we reported last year, the fight over graduate student organizing rights has taken yet another tumultuous turn at the National Labor Relations Board. The Board has changed its position twice in recent years on the issue of whether graduate students are employees entitled to the protections of the National Labor Relations Act or merely students, who are not protected by the Act. The Board was set to address this issue in a pending case involving New York University (NYU), but a settlement last week between NYU and the United Auto Workers (UAW) will result in a withdrawal of the case and no new precedent.
The case began when the UAW petitioned to represent graduate students at NYU and the NYU Polytechnic Institute. However, those petitions were dismissed by the Board regional directors who were constrained to follow a 2004 decision involving Brown University, in which the Board had held that graduate students are not employees and therefore not protected by the NLRA. However, in June of 2012, the Board announced that it would hear the UAW’s appeal, and it invited amicus briefs from interested parties advocating for and against granting organizing rights to graduate students. Instead of waiting for a decision, which many believed would favor the UAW given the recent pro labor decisions from the Obama-appointed Board, the parties agreed to a settlement.
As part of the settlement, NYU agreed to recognize the results of a union election that will be conducted by the American Arbitration Association. The potential bargaining unit consists of all graduate teaching assistants at NYU and the NYU Polytechnic Institute and could total more than 1,000 students. Notably, NYU refused to allow graduate research assistants working in the hard sciences—which the UAW had also been attempting to organize—to participate in the election. NYU also agreed to remain neutral during the campaign and election, which is expected to take place in the next few weeks.
For higher education institutions attempting to resist unionization efforts from graduate students, this settlement is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it prevented the Board from issuing new precedent that could have granted greater organizing rights to all graduate students at private universities. On the other hand, it may result in increased efforts by the UAW or other unions to organize graduate students and to obtain voluntary recognition outside of the Board process. In any event, the outcome of the election and the continued relationship between NYU and the UAW will surely impact how private universities approach graduate student unions and organizing efforts. We will continue to provide updates on further developments.