Catching the Union Bug: Graduate Student Employees and Unionization

Neal H. Hutchens & Melissa B. Hutchens, Catching the Union Bug: Graduate Student Employees and Unionization, 39 Gonz. L. Rev. 105 (2004).

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Graduate students often assume multiple roles as they simultaneously struggle to keep pace with their academic coursework while serving as instructors in undergraduate classrooms, conducting research for faculty, or fulfilling some other type of university position that helps to subsidize their graduate studies. Similarly, blurred lines exist in the relationships between graduate students and the faculty acting as the students’ employers, advisors, and teachers. Questions over the employment status of graduate students have engendered significant debate in recent years. Union supporters claim that graduate students employed by universities deserve the same collective bargaining rights as other university employees. University officials respond that graduate students working as teaching and research assistants are primarily students and warn that treating such graduate students as employees threatens academic freedom and the relationships between students and their faculty advisors.

An important reason for increased discussion and controversy stems from a relatively recent change on the part of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) regarding the status of graduate students employed by private universities under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or “Act”). In New York University (“NYU”), the NLRB reversed a long-standing position that excluded graduate student workers at private universities from the purview of the NLRA. The decision opened the door for graduate students at private institutions to exercise their collective bargaining rights under the NLRA. The NLRB’s new position may be short-lived, however, with appointees to the NLRB by President George W. Bush ready to potentially reverse the decision in NYU…. Read More

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