In August, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a landmark decision allowing graduate students at private universities nationwide to be able to unionize. The recent case, which involved graduate research and teaching assistants at Columbia University, overturned a 2004 Brown University precedent that banned graduate students from unionizing based on finding then that students were not employees and were not entitled to the right to organize.

The Columbia decision was reached after a lengthy legal battle between the University and the group Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC). The group first moved to unionize almost two years ago. After the University refused to recognize GWC as a union, the group took their case to the highest level of the NLRB, a five-person governing body in Washington referred to as the Board. The Board agreed to review the GWC's petition to unionize last December after a regional office of the NLRB had twice dismissed it.

In opposing the petition, Columbia argued that “students have a primarily academic relationship with the University and therefore are not employees,” which was in accordance with the Brown precedent. Alternatively, GWC argued that research and teaching assistants who “perform services for Columbia, receive compensation for performing these services, work to fulfill the mission of the University, and work under its direction and control,” are employees. The majority agreed with GWC, and reversed the Brown University case, saying it “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act without a convincing justification.”

Federal courts have made clear that the authority to define the term “employee” rests primarily with the Board absent an exception enumerated within the National Labor Relations Act. The Act contains no clear language prohibiting student assistants from its coverage, and the majority found no compelling reason to exclude student assistants from the protections of the Act.
Julie Kushner, the Director of UAW Region 9A, who now represents the GWC, sees this as the beginning of a national trend. Kushner stated “[b]y standing together, Columbia graduate workers have paved the way for thousands of other research assistants and teaching assistants to have a recognized voice in America’s higher education and build the institutions that we need for a more fair, just and equitable country.”