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Hot Button Issue: A Spotlight on Graduate Students Trying to Unionize

labor unionAt private universities across the country, graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants are attempting to unionize in the hopes of being able to collectively-bargain for increased stipends, better health benefits, and transparent grievance procedures, among other issues.

In order for a union to gain recognition in a private employment setting, a minimum of 30% of eligible members in a bargaining unit must sign authorization cards and submit them to the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) which will then certify that the cards are matched to a list of eligible workers. Once this happens, an employer can either choose to recognize the union outright if it is verified that a majority of workers signed authorization cards, or the NLRB will administer an election. A majority of eligible workers (50% +1) must vote in favor of the union in order for the bargaining unit to be certified.

Many public institutions, including the University of California (UC) and the State University of New York (SUNY) systems, have had graduate student unions for many years. The United Automobile Workers (“UAW”) has been particularly active over the past couple of decades in attempting to unionize graduate students in private schools.

Recently, graduate students at both Boston College and Columbia University have engaged in unionization efforts and won their respective elections to certify. However, prior to the elections, both schools filed appeals with the NLRB, arguing that graduate students working as teaching and research assistants should be classified as students, not employees, and have refused to bargain until the end of the appeals process.

Graduate students at Boston College have withdrawn their petition with the NLRB, formally ending their attempt at unionization, while the situation at Columbia is still in limbo pending the NLRB’s decision on appeal. Other universities such as Georgetown and Fordham have expressed a willingness to bargain, regardless of any decision the NLRB makes over the employee status of the students in the Columbia case.

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