On Friday (September 20), the National Labor Relations Board proposed a rule stating that graduate students at private universities are not employees and cannot form unions. The proposal follows years of back-and-forth decisions on the status of graduate students’ ability to unionize. It is unclear how the new rule would affect ongoing unionization efforts; Inside Higher Ed reports that current contracts would not be affected by the rule until they expire.

See “Labor Agency Revisits Whether Graduate Students Can Unionize

In 2000, the board ruled that students at New York University could unionize, but it overturned this decision in a 2004 Brown University case. This was then reversed in 2016, when it determined that graduate and undergraduate students at Columbia University were considered employees and had the right to unionize, reports Science.

After the 2016 Columbia decision, students at 12 other universities voted...

National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) members are appointed by the current presidential administration, so the board’s views on unions have differed with each administration, flip-flopping on whether teaching and research done by students at private universities is considered part of their education or if it is work that makes them employees.

See: “Graduate Student Unions Opt Out of Federal Recognition

Some see the proposed rule as overreach. “What’s troubling about this is this is Congress’s job,” William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at City University of New York’s Hunter College, tells Inside Higher Ed. “This is rulemaking about excluding a class of employees from the National Labor Relations Act.”

The NLRB is allowing public comments on the rule electronically or by mail until November 22. 

Emily Makowski is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at emakowski@the-scientist.com.

Interested in reading more?

The Scientist ARCHIVES

Become a Member of

Receive full access to more than 35 years of archives, as well as TS Digest, digital editions of The Scientist, feature stories, and much more!
Already a member?