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National Labor Relations Board signals possible change in ban on grad student unions at private universities

In a 2004 ruling affecting Brown University, the National Labor Relations Board voted not to permit unions for graduate assistants at the universities under its authority — that is, the nation’s private campuses.  On Monday, a 2-to-1 majority of NLRB members dominated by Democrats — the 2004 board had a Republican majority — voted to grant a hearing to graduate assistants attempting to unionize at New York University (NYU). The hearing will determine whether their unionization drive can go forward.  The majority cited differences in the circumstances at Brown and NYU, reports Inside Higher Education. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the authors of majority opinion wrote that there were “compelling reasons” to reconsider the 2004 decision.

The so-called Brown University decision of 2004 covered private universities across the nation and found that graduate assistants are primarily students, not employees, and therefore ineligible for unionization.  Public universities are governed not by the federal NLRB but by state laws covering public employees.  Some states permit graduate students to organize unions.
Union proponents consider Monday’s vote a promising sign of a possible change ahead. The decision was praised by the UAW, the national union that is working to organize the NYU graduate assistants, and the American Federal of Teachers, which is also active in campus organizing.  Of course, NYU, which opposes unionization of its grad assistants, disagreed with the decision.  Stay tuned for what could be a long legal battle resulting in a decision that, anyway, some future board could later overturn.

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