AAUP Brief Supports Graduate Assistants’ Rights to Unionize

BY RISA LIEBERWITZ

ColumbiaInstagram@ProdenboughToday, the AAUP filed an amicus brief with the National Labor Relations Board in the Columbia University case, arguing that graduate assistants at private sector institutions should be considered employees with collective bargaining rights. The brief responded to an invitation from the NLRB to file amicus briefs addressing whether the Board should overrule its 2004 decision in Brown University, which had found that private university graduate assistants were not employees and therefore did not have statutory rights to unionize. 342 NLRB 483 (2004). In the amicus brief the AAUP argued that the Board should overrule Brown and return to its decision in New York University, 332 NLRB No. 111 (2000), which found that graduate assistants are employees under the NLRA, with rights to unionize and collectively bargain.

The AAUP decided to file an amicus brief in this case in keeping with its long history of support for the unionization of graduate assistants. The AAUP has previously filed numerous amicus briefs arguing the graduate assistants are employees with rights to unionize under the NLRA, has issued statements affirming the rights of graduate assistants to unionize, and has an active committee on graduate students and professional employees that represents the interests of graduate students.

The AAUP brief presents multiple reasons for the NLRB to return to its NYU decision holding that graduate teaching and research assistants have rights as employees under the NLRA. These reasons demonstrate the reality that graduate assistants are paid to work in the university – in fact, they are essential to the university being able to carry out its teaching and research work. That graduate assistants are also students doesn’t change the fact that they are paid as teaching and research assistants to work, not to enable the graduate student to attend class or conduct his or her own dissertation research.

As importantly, the AAUP refutes university employer arguments (and the NLRB’s position in Brown) that graduate assistant unionization would interfere with academic freedom and faculty-student mentoring relationships. To the contrary, there is convincing evidence that unionization enhances both academic freedom and faculty-student relationships.

As the AAUP brief explains, the extensive experience of public university unionization shows that “collective bargaining by both faculty and graduate assistants is one of several ways to promote academic freedom on campus, as it allows faculty, students, and administrators to discuss collectively how best to do their shared work of teaching and research. Contractual guarantees to preserve individual academic freedom are an increasingly standard feature of graduate assistant collective bargaining.” Additionally, universities and unions can and do negotiate for contract clauses protecting the university’s “institutional” academic freedom.

In refuting the speculative claim that collective bargaining would compromise the cooperative relationships between faculty mentors and their graduate student mentees, the AAUP brief cites large empirical studies of unionized campuses. The brief highlighted a recent study that is particularly compelling:

[A] 2013 study comparing student-faculty relationships, academic freedom, and economic well-being across unionized and non-unionized campuses confirmed the findings of prior surveys: unionization does not interfere with faculty-student relationships or harm the education or training of graduate students. See Sean E. Rodgers, Adrienne E. Eaton, & Paula B. Voos, Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay, 66 ILR Review 487-501 (2013). . . . Comparing unionized and non-unionized graduate student employees in terms of faculty-student relations, academic freedom, and pay, the study found that union represented graduate student employees reported higher levels of personal and professional support and unionized graduate student employees fared better on pay… Unionized graduate students “had higher mean ratings on their advisors accepting them as competent professionals, serving as a role model to them, being someone they wanted to become like, and being effective in his or her role.”

And so, there are many good reasons for finding that private university graduate assistants are employees with rights under the NLRA. And there are no good reasons for immunizing universities from their obligations as employers to respect the choice of their employees – including graduate assistants – to unionize. As explained in the AAUP amicus brief, collective bargaining is a positive way to improve the economic well-being of graduate assistants, and as importantly, to protect rights of academic freedom and enhance faculty-student relationships.

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